kitchen adventures with Plated

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve started cooking regularly again.  I wanted to share some of my adventures with y’all and also review the service I’ve been using: Plated.

So, I probably should back things up a bit.

I’ve had a bit of a crazy food journey over the last few years.  I grew up dirt poor; our family relied often on food banks and sometimes we had to rely on food stamps for the rest.  If you have ever lived that life, you know how to stretch a dollar.  I think I’ve had way more than my fair share of rice in every conceivable preparation and have enjoyed fried potatoes in every shape.  And, not to be outdone, humble American cheese can make nearly anything edible.

Not the healthiest things, but they do fill your belly.  That said, I also grew up with a dad who was a chef and an aunt who knew how to make any kind of Mexican food.  I also was lucky enough to live in the heart of Denver’s Asian community that also happened to be a melting pot of Mexicans, South Americans of varying origin, and Somalians.  You can’t really live in that environment without growing a healthy adoration for spices, herbs, citrus, and chilies.

I grew up cooking–at first, with my dad–who taught me the basics of flavors, craft, and mise en place.  I always had an innate instinct for such things, so I was an eager and competent student.  He also taught me about bread–whether it was made with yeast or stuff sizzling in a skillet.  My auntie taught me about balancing heat with intense flavors, ooey gooey cheese, and making the most of small amounts of protein in our summer forays to Phoenix.  I also learned a shit ton from PBS cooking shows–particularly, Lidia and Martin Yan–though I never really cooked a lot of Asian.  When you have amazing Asian food of any want just steps away, you don’t try to reinvent the wheel.  You order from your friend’s Mama and devour her reliable genius.

When my father passed away, a lot of our family’s cooking fell to me.  Even at six years old,  I was the one planning and executing meals–trying hard to make the rice taste like something other than salty starch.  My Mama was not much of a cook.  She had worked in a hotel cafe as a teenager as a “salad girl” and knew how to make giant, beautiful salads.  She also could make desserts–cakes, pies, and sundaes.  All of which she learned at 14.  My Mama could make a cake out of pretty much nothing, and she often did.  I learned how to use up powdered milk by adding it to peanut butter and rolling it into balls for a dessert snack that would help the cravings when I was starving far after dinner was over.  But her salads were what inspired me–and they only showed up during the first week of every month–but they were glorious and always served in a giant wooden bowl–each vegetable honored and highlighted.

Cooking was always this beautiful, problem-solving event for me.  It was a way to make something ordinary, and maybe a bit sad, memorable and fun.  How could I stretch our small dollars even further and not feel deprived?  It was a place where I could create and comfort and find home.

I’ve always been an experimenter, and my mother was my sous chef–supporting my adventures with her expert knife skills (alas, I am too impatient to really be good at such things).  I would tackle cookbooks and teach myself all the things I wanted to know–sauces, sophisticated preps, marinades–fancy food we couldn’t afford until after I started working at 14.  I became known for my marathon cooking sprees and my complicated holiday meals.

Ironically, it was when I emerged out of poverty that my relationship with food took a darker turn.  It was strange because what had always brought me joy started feeling like work–had a real price tag that had nothing to do with money.

At some point or another, I decided to change my health and lose weight.  And for a long time, I ate very clean–and hated every obsessive minute of it.  I relaxed a bit after years of hating my relationship with my body and my nourishment–only to find greater depths of struggle when my health hit me over the head, and I found myself back in a space I never wanted to return to.  That I had been terrified to return to.

Food–and my body–my cravings and physicality–became the enemy.  But you can’t stop eating, really–so I turned to comfort and convenience and sort of let the dysfunction take over.  And it was like that for a while–though I would try to reassert my healthy conscience and was successful off and on.  Then I had a big health crisis–almost died–and was basically forced to change everything about my diet.  What I had done just wasn’t an option anymore.  It had nothing to do with weight.  It was all about living.  My body wasn’t processing my food–at all–so I was an exhausted mess and I had to figure out how to nourish a body that suddenly didn’t have all the tools it needed to thrive.

It took me a good year to just figure that out.  I saw all kinds of practitioners and tried to embrace a Paleo lifestyle.  We signed up for a local meal service that was mostly tasty, but also extremely monotonous and expensive.  My roommate thrived and lost a ton of weight while I gained weight and felt like I was going crazy.  My body ached for carbs, and some days, I wasn’t strong enough to say no.  While everyone said this is what my body needed, it was clearly not what my body wanted.  My body was speaking some other language because this felt rigid and torturous.  I stopped and started–sputtering–my self-esteem taking major hits every time I broke down and ate a bit of bread.  My roommate sternly scolded me and wondered why I was so undisciplined.  I hated him and everyone else who was telling me what I should do–telling me to ignore my bible (my gut).  It was completely devoid of love or respect for my body’s desires and the choices I consciously made to honor them.

In 2015, our lives changed dramatically when we decided to move to the Bay Area.  We had planned to move to San Diego earlier, but things fell through due to unforeseen work situations.  Once the decision was made, things happened pretty quickly, and my roommate moved out to Mountain View about 2 weeks after accepting the offer.  Before he left, he did his best to pack things and chaos erupted in our small apartment.  I was supposed to join him a few months later, after he found an apartment for us and our three cats.  Only it took a crazy long time and expenses were way more than we figured.  And then one of our cats got cancer, then pancreatitis, then diabetes and IBS.  It was a full year and some change before I made it out here.  But despite all the crazy that went with that, it was ultimately a good thing.

Living with someone who had a very big personality and strong will, I had often deferred to him and let him take over.  I never felt like the kitchen was mine after he moved in, especially after I got super sick and just didn’t have the energy.  I usually stayed in my room and fell back to unhealthy habits–though I now had the money to be more healthy.  My go to was Whole Foods hot bar.  I never loved that kitchen and found it difficult to cook there even before he moved in.  But he and I are very different people–him being a messy person who doesn’t notice crumbs and me being the chef daughter I am raised by a mother who was a maid.  I’m a bit OCD about clean kitchens.  I can distinctly remember walking into the kitchen one day and having to clean the entire stove, fridge, and counters–and just not wanting to cook after that.  I did–but I was angry–and angry cooking doesn’t taste good, peeps.

I’d been feeling like food was the enemy for years–but now I was exhausted just doing small things–and I just didn’t have the energy to be mad and constantly cleaning up after someone just to make a sandwich.

When my roommate left, things shifted.  The kitchen was a mess because of my abandoning it and letting him take over–so much so that I didn’t even want to deal with it after he left.  I got a mini fridge and found the crock pot; bought a grill and other tools.  I told my roommate to stop commenting on my food–that he was never again allowed to scold me about bread.  I abandoned Paleo and gave myself permission to eat anything.  The first few weeks–I went nuts–and actually got sick of all the things I’d been denying myself–so I actually made better food choices after that.  I started cooking in my crockpot, filling my tiny fridge with organic produce and all the things that matched my good intentions.  But that ambition didn’t last long as my body was still very weak and tired.  I decided I needed some kind of compromise, so I found a great meal service delivery that offered food I’d actually cook if I wasn’t exhausted.  Healthy, reasonably priced, responsibly sourced food that didn’t eliminate food groups.  That was a big deal for me.  I got 10 meals a week and cooked my own food on weekends and breakfasts.  And it was perfect, basically.

When I moved here, I wanted to start cooking like I did when I was a kid.  Not every night, like back then, but a few nights a week.  I’d never seen our place in person, so it was not a great surprise to find that it was smaller than I’d hoped and I’m pretty short in relation to the tall counters.  Plus, my roommate had been living here a whole year with his girlfriend by the time I made it–with zero supplies–so he basically had very barebones tools.  We didn’t move a lot of our stuff from the old apartment due to the debacle that was the move out–so we had planned on buying a lot of new things once settled in.

So, it’s not been a joyful transition.  I had to fight for 1 single shelf in the fridge we were supposed to share.  I now have a shelf, a small drawer, a tiny part of the fridge door, about 1/3 of the freezer, and 1 cabinet.  I can make it work–but it takes a lot of planning and discipline.  I’m not at all happy about it, and although my roommate says he wants me to feel comfortable in the kitchen, I’ve really had to be assertive about getting what I needed.  At first, I tried cooking my ideas and recipes, but it is a) expensive, b) a lot of food to fit in my limited space, and c) exhausting considering I had pneumonia and hives the first 6 weeks I was here.  I relied a lot on take-out again and wasted a lot of food.  Luckily, delivery food out here is basically disgusting–so I really don’t want to order out unless I’m too exhausted to do much else.

That’s when I decided I needed to find a solution.  I couldn’t find anything close to what I loved in Denver, so I started looking at meal prep services like Blue Apron.  I had lots of coupon codes for free meals, but after lots of research, I chose Plated.

Why did I choose Plated?

  • It was food I actually wanted to eat.  Based on the pictures and recipes I found online.  And food that would be interesting to cook–not just making a sandwich or tossing sauce on pasta.
  • They offered a decent promotion to try it.
  • A way to keep portion controls in check, prevent food waste, and eat fairly healthfully.
  • They didn’t really offer many meals I am allergic to–like shellfish.  Other services don’t let you opt out, believe it or not.
  • They seemed pretty reliable in terms of on-time delivery and fresh food.
  • The food would be coming from a nearby city.
  • It was decently priced…actually cheaper than a meal I’d make myself since I’m herb girl.
  • High food quality in terms of being sustainably sourced and oftentimes local.
  • Packaging that wasn’t too unfriendly to the environment.
  • Lots of vegetarian options that weren’t just pasta–like hearty stuff that would actually fill me up.

I initially opted for the 2 meal, 3 servings a meal, per week deal for about $72.  I chose Saturday delivery so I wouldn’t stress out about missing a package while I worked from my bedroom.  I chose the Seared Steak with Swiss Chard and Butternut Squash Gratin along with Chicken Milanese with an Arugula Salad and Honey Mustard Sauce.  I then discovered my roommate also signed up for Plated (because he likes to copy me).

He got his box on Tuesday and had signed up for 3 meals a week…one of which was the seared steak–so I got a sneak peak before my box showed up.

All the items were well-packaged and labeled.  Food was cold and beautiful–no mess.  Big, bright, lovely recipe cards included.  Delivery was easy and on-time–which is saying something because our building throws delivery peeps for a loop and is always a struggle whenever we get delivered anything.  For once, no hassles.

My roommates enjoyed their meals, and everything smelled delicious.  I then found out Plated offered dessert–from my roommate–who ordered it for the following week.  I went to investigate–and had to contact customer service about it–which was easy and positive.  Refreshing.  Unfortunately, though, they don’t offer dessert for the 3 serving option, so I decided to change to 3 meals, 2 servings a week rolling forward after week one because I like dessert.

I finally got my meals on that Saturday, and everything was great.  I was a happy girl.  Then I tried cooking my first meal.  And um…there were problems.

Now, part of the problem was my kitchen and our lack of tools, still.  Like our cutting board isn’t that big.  And the knives my roommate likes?  I hate.  My knives were packed at that point, so yea.  Also, the counters aren’t really made for me.  So chopping wasn’t that much fun.  I felt like a toddler.

But the big issue I had with the first meal I made–the seared steak with gratin–was the Swiss chard.  My roommate didn’t get a bundle of Swiss chard this large.  Mine was probably 3x as large as his.  I didn’t want to waste it, so I decided to just use it all–as the recipe instructed–and that’s where I had my issue.

It took an obscenely long time to derib, meticulously clean, and the chop up chard–separating the various parts of the veggie.  It also took a long time to cut up the butternut squash that had already been cubed into medium sized bites–but the recipe called for more cutting.  (This has happened on more than one recipe–and it drives me crazy.  I’d rather they just sent me a whole squash and let me cut it up myself–or just cut them into the correct sizes to begin with!).  So, given all of that, our pan was too small for this mountain of chard.  Which meant I had to cook it in batches.  Which meant not all the flavors were cooked with all the batches.  Which meant not all the chard was all that tasty.  Surprisingly, it all fit into the container they sent for the gratin–but only because I cooked the chard down quite a bit to get it to fit–which was not the best thing to do flavor-wise. When I finally got it into the oven, I was terrified the flimsy aluminum pan was going to cave in–and wished I’d used a casserole dish instead.  Worse still, when the time came for the gratin to come out, there was tons of liquid still there–mostly because of all that damn chard, but also because the cooking times weren’t accurate because of the chard.  Based on other meals–I’m guessing the cooking times are pretty off universally.  I’ve yet to cook anything to exact cooking time so far.

Luckily, I can cook my ass off.  And this is the kind of shit I did as a kid.  When you’re experimenting, you have to deal with extra liquid sometimes.  So I poured the liquid out and into a skillet and reduced it down to make a thick sauce–which I poured back on the gratin and then returned it all to the oven.

chard.jpg

Dish saved.  Total prep and cooking time: 2 1/2 hours.  Rating 2 out of 5 stars.  It was a decent dish, but too much chard, not enough cheesy deliciousness, and overall mostly disappointing.  I didn’t eat one of the servings.  It was fussy food, and while I have been known to embrace complicated recipes, I don’t have the patience for that if the end results aren’t amazing.

I blame the chard.  On the plus side, the steak was pretty good.

I was sort of not looking forward to the next recipe–the Chicken Milanese–because I knew there would be breading and raw poultry.  Raw poultry just, frankly, grosses me out.  It brings out my OCD insanity and breading is something I’ve always hated–even as a kid.  I’ve never been a fan of sticky fingers.  But I do love me some Milanese, so whatever, I’ll do it.

This recipe was actually decent and not too troublesome–though the breading was still an ordeal for a weeknight and I wasn’t a fan.  It wasn’t too bad, though, and didn’t take too long.  I didn’t pound my meat because we don’t have a mallet and nothing really heavy enough to hit anything with.  I thought about butterflying, but didn’t want to wreck the breasts and who has time for that anyway?  The breasts were on the small side, so I knew it would be fine; I just might need to cook things longer.

The recipe cards have you prep certain things first, but man–it just doesn’t fit how I cook–and I quickly realized that following the recipe was my problem with that first meal.  I’m someone who cooks very instinctively–that’s what’s fun to me and usually where I thrive.  So, reading through and being rigid is not for me.  If I know the gist of things and know generally what to do–I can make it better than any recipe.  So, I did that–and the meal turned out way better than I expected.  Pretty much just like a restaurant meal.

chix

Of course, being me, I tweaked it a bunch and added parm.  Overall, I would get this again, but would save it for a weekend meal.  I would give it 3 out of 5 stars.  It was tasty and it didn’t take a lot of time to prepare, but was a lot of work for a typical weeknight.

Last week, I ordered three meals: cauliflower carbonara, cheesy squash chiliquiles, and roasted chicken with butternut squash panzanella.  My box arrived as normal, but one of my meals–the one I was most looking forward to–the panzanella–wasn’t all there.  I got the recipe card, the bread, and the chicken.  Instead of the veggies and flavorings, I instead got the ingredients for the coconut poached fish dish they offered this week.  I was pretty bummed, but hopeful they could just send me the missing items and get me back on track–since I had a good experience with customer service last time.  Unfortunately, since I have Saturday delivery and their meals are all sent out for the week by then, they don’t have replacements they can just send you if something is missing or goes wrong.  That was disappointing.  But they did send me the fish recipe and I decided to just use the protein for that and use my own broccoli since I didn’t get bok choy in the box.  I was a little nervous since I usually don’t love coconut milk based dishes.

I was pretty lazy last week due to not feeling well and ate way too much takeout (ugh).  So I didn’t get to cooking until way late in the week and ended up cooking two meals on Saturday to make room for my new box.  I made the carbonara earlier in the week.  That was a decent recipe that was pretty simple and easy to make.  I roasted the cauliflower, baked the bacon, and added more cheese and some garlic plus various spices.  I do what I want, right?  Overall, I was really pleased with it and it took less than an hour–with tons of leftovers. If I have one complaint, I really wish the cauliflower was cut up for us as it’s kind of messy to cut up.  But that is probably because of my tiny cutting board.  Luckily, I had found my go-to knife by then.

carbs.jpg

On Saturday, I decided to tackle the Frankenstein recipe and the chiliquiles.  I don’t cook a lot of Asian, but have been craving it because–shockingly–there are not many good Asian options out here other than Japanese.  I’ve been really cranky about it.  So I was hopeful the fried rice would be delicious.  I wasn’t able to download the recipe card on my phone, so I basically winged it.

I had so much fun looking at the ingredients and trying to figure it out.  I was super happy with the results and was in shock that it was better than any fried rice I’d ever had–and I’ve had some fantastic fried rice.  It was easily my most favorite meal of the year.  The chicken was rich and yummy, too.

dueling.jpg

The chiliquiles was basically deconstructed enchiladas–only super simple.  The dish was pretty easy.  You’d never guess there was squash in it, and the sauce was so rich and lovely.  It was just cheesy enough without ruining your health.  I gobbled it down.  I did add more lime and made guac with the avocados, but mostly stayed true to the recipe.  It was also my first time making homemade chips.  Who knew they were so easy and quick–and so much better than store bought?!  5 out of 5 for both.

What I love about Plated

  • Lots of variety.
  • Filling, interesting vegetarian dishes that don’t leave you missing meat (as an omnivore).
  • Lovely spices.
  • Mostly delicious, restaurant quality meals that are worth the effort to prepare.
  • Great quality ingredients that are sustainable and organic.
  • On-time, reliable delivery.
  • Good customer service.
  • Beautiful recipe cards.
  • Even seasoned cooks feel like they’re learning something.
  • Exposure to things you may not be comfortable with.
  • Contained portion sizes help reduce waste.
  • Most items are pre-measured.

What I don’t enjoy about Plated

  • Inconsistent bundling of ingredients that is sometimes not as thoughtful or results in missing items altogether.
  • Lack of real problem resolution for those with Saturday delivery.  There should be stock on hand for people who have issues with orders.  While I understand the company can’t always make things right, and the credit for a free meal was awesome, it still is a big inconvenience and is disappointing.  I really wanted to try the panzanella.  While I was able to make it work, if I wasn’t a person comfortable with cooking, it would have probably resulted in wasted food.
  • Lots of plastic packaging for the bundles.  I really really hate how the meats are packaged.  Plastic bottles and containers sometimes are damaged in transit (like my sour cream last week), resulting in a mess that also skews recipes.
  • Inconsistent amounts of veggies, which can throw off recipes drastically.
  • Baking pans that are flimsy and not stable.
  • Cumbersome techniques for weeknight meals which may add a lot of time to prep and may derail the entire recipe, depending on skill level of the cook.
  • Requirements for tools like blenders.  I used to have a blender, but don’t now–so making a homemade aioli might not be realistic for me.  Recipes should be based on a basic kitchen set-up.
  • Not the best instructions for the recipes.  Incorrect estimates of times needed.  Lack of clear explanations that speak to a variety of learning styles.
  • No explanations or help provided if you do have problems preparing a recipe.  With the chard gratin, that meal would have been inedible had I not figured out how to save it.  I’m sure this was a common problem–so just knowing that there may be extra liquid–and hey…here’s how to deal with that so your work isn’t all a waste.
  • With veggies, some explanation as to volume would be helpful.  For instance, if a cup of chard is what I need to add–tell me that.  Don’t just say, cut up the bundle.  Produce varies quite a bit.
  • While they do encourage us to post about our meals, there’s really no incentive to do so like with other services.
  • Asking people to have an egg on hand for a recipe is annoying.  I still have eggs I bought just so I could have one egg to prepare my Plated meal.  Unless you eat eggs regularly, you may not have it on hand.  If they provide you with flour, eggs should be provided as well.  The only things I would expect every kitchen to have?  Oil and salt/pepper.
  • The not being able to get dessert thing at the 3 serving level is kind of bunk.  (Maybe I’m just bitter about being forced to cook more each week to get my sweet fix).

Overall, I enjoy Plated and will continue with them for the time being.  It has been great to be back in the kitchen again.  I do feel like I’m better when I ignore the recipe.  But that’s my own weird quirk.  🙂

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