Monthly Archives: August 2006

Have You Tried These Meal Prep Services?

In this entry, I decided to tackle something that I find mind-bogglingly fascinating and slightly strange at the same time. I know that it’s Wednesday, and that my posts are relatively consistently put up at the weekend, but an article in The Washington Post’s “Food” section today caught my eye. This article will be available for free from the paper’s website for a week, then it will go into their archives. So, as they say, “Get it while it’s hot!”

For a while now, there has been growing press about two new and different types of ways to get food on yours and your family’s tables each evening. Long-gone is the era of even middle-class families having cooks or someone to help with the household chores, well, unless you have lots of kids and make them do the work. Personal cheffing and meal prep places have been receiving lots of attention as solutions to our time-starved (forgive the term) lifestyles.
The former, for those not familiar with it, is where a trained cook comes to your home, fixes meals based upon menus you have chosen jointly and leaves them in your refrigerator with preparation instructions. Then, on a weekly/bi-weekly/monthly schedule, whatever you have chosen, he/she returns and starts all over again. Meals are prepared specifically to your tastes and dietary requirements.
There is some selection in terms of what you pull out of the fridge and heat up, but there’s no heavy cooking or prep work involved (however, depending upon the plan, you might prepare the salads and side dishes). For those who never want to fix anything and who balk at the thought of eating take-out or fast food every night of the week, although I’ve had roommates who didn’t mind doing that at all, this might be a good meal-plan option. Depending upon the prices, you might even come out ahead.
Washingtonian Magazine (www.washingtonian.com) in its October 2003 issue, did a great roundup and explanation of this service and the pricing; you can check it out online or back order it. The Food Network ran a segment on the topic a little while ago, and I think I’ve seen it re-run as well. Several schools that hold cooking courses also offer the possibility to receive personal chef certification and instruction. I’ve actually debated pursing this career path for a few years but am concerned about the start-up costs for it.
The latter meal-prep option, the one featured in the Post today, is where you go to a facility that has everything already set up, chopped, washed, and laid out, recipes are set up, and you yourself put together the meal for cooking later at your own home. There’s nothing for you to buy, everything is measured out to make a specific dish, and there’s no extra ingredients left over to wilt or mold in the back of your fridge (“Honey, what is this green fuzzy thing behind the mayonnaise jar?”). Again, there are various pricing options depending upon how much you would like to make and the kinds of ingredients you are using.
As an urban singleton, none of these plans seem to suit my lifestyle any more than ordering from my local whatever-cuisine place or stopping for a bite at the diner in my neighborhood. Besides, I like having leftovers. I usually refer to them as “next day’s lunch/dinner.” Part of it, I guess, is that I also like to cook most of the time. For me, preparing my own dinner is just a natural part of the day; sometimes it is even therapeutic and soothing to create a dish out of myriad ingredients I may have on hand. It also makes the apartment smell wonderfully homey.
I grew up in what might be termed a larger household, though, and admit that sometimes dinner was catch-as-catch-can what with our varying evening schedules (“Hamburger macaroni, hmm, must be Cub Scout meeting night.”), homework, piano practice, etc. Also, with so many family members, our taste buds weren’t always in sync. In this atmosphere, I learned how to wield a knife, wooden spoon and can opener at a much younger age than most of my contemporaries. I’ve actually been shocked to find, as my roommates have grown younger and younger over the years, how many people were never ever taught the basics about how to put together something to eat.
Perhaps that is part of the draw of these facilities: they allow people not to have the basic techniques that they were never taught and are afraid to learn but still let them manage to put food on their family’s table. I’m not trying to be harsh here. I guess I’m trying to understand why there is a draw to these places and services when I really don’t think that they save any more time than I do in fixing my own meals myself. (How hard is it to marinade a steak?) In reading through the menu choices, the possible selections seem interesting, but I’m not convinced that I’d know that far in advance what I’d like to eat on any given day.
In fact, cooking and shopping for one can actually be more expensive in the time-is-money factor per person, and I bet it is more costly than doing the same for a family. Especially, as for me to shop economically in New York City, I either have to take a subway or two buses or some combination of thereof to get to the least expensive places in town. We don’t have warehouse shopping in Manhattan and forget about loading up a car with food or anything else.
Personally, I wonder about giving up quality control (I like to choose organic where I can.) and the TLC that goes into personally selecting the ingredients for dishes for my loved ones. I learned so much about food and cooking by watching my mother prepare our dinners, feel that nothing can replace the smell of onions sautéing in melted butter, and remember the kitchen and dining room tables as the gathering places in our household. A large part of my childhood and some very fond memories would be gone without those moments. With new homes being built with dramatically increased square footage for those rooms and equipped with all sorts of special and designer features, it seems to me like a waste, then, not to use them to cook for and sustain our families ourselves.
Resource List:
The article in the Post mentions several services available in the DC metro area. Here are their websites, if you would like to check them out to see what they offer. As none of them offer services located in an urban setting, I was unable to test them out personally myself. The article also has a handy PDF comparison chart.
Many companies are located in various metropolitan areas throughout the United States and are run as franchises. They even have their own trade association (Easy Meal Prep Association) and many retail suppliers willing to serve them. 12-meal packages that you prepare on-site (with 4-6 servings each) varied in price from $199.00 (My Girlfriend’s Kitchen) to $230.00 (Dinner My Way). Menu selections also vary widely to my tastes.
Let’s Dish! (www.letsdish.com)
Thyme Out (www.thymeout.com)
Dream Dinners (www.dreamdinners.com)
Dinner My Way (www.dinnermyway.com)
My Girlfriend’s Kitchen (secure.mygirlfriendskitchen.com)
Buon appetito!

36 Hours Visits Washington, DC – My Inputs

A regular feature in the New York Times on Fridays is the piece where someone goes and visits a city, wanders around, eats at some local places, sees the sites, and then writes about it. O.K. That might be a bit simplistic of a synopsis, but the point is that these are quick bites about a place, rather than in-depth explorations of a city’s delights.

Please don’t think that I’m faulting this genre in any way, in fact, quite the contrary, I enjoy reading the pieces each week and have pulled quite a few articles for my places-to-be-visited collection. So, I was especially interested in today’s topic for “36 Hours” – my hometown-ish of Washington, D.C. – and curious to see the writer’s take on it. (click here for article) I was sort of disappointed, however, to see that he barely touched on some of the myriad eating establishments that dot the city’s landscape (Galileo, Zola, Marcel’s, and Kinkead’s among them).
Not ever hailed by any stretch of the imagination as one of the great culinary cities of the United States, or the world for that matter, I find it fascinating at how much has changed in the 10-plus years since I’ve lived in the area. While there were always a few stand-out restaurants, the stars were usually hidden amongst the reams of mediocrity and the downright awful – and I’m not just talking about the hot dog carts or the government-agency cafeterias (though I’ve eaten at both). Now, there seem to be plenty of choices and price ranges for places where one can find a good meal.
Here are some of my thoughts on the author’s recommendations about where to go and what to eat while visiting the Nation’s Capital. You’ll note there’s not a “death dog” cart among them. [Please note that the link to the original New York Times article will only be active for a week. After that, it is available for a fee from their archives service.]

Hotel Washington (www.hotelwashington.com) – Remember the rooftop power breakfast scene in No Way Out? Here’s your chance to feel as though you are on top of the world in D.C., at least as long as you are ordering food and drink. They used to do a decent lunchtime burger and on crystal clear days the place was as packed as the Metro’s Orange Line to Vienna during evening rush hour. Last time I went there was for post-work drinks which were also good. It’s one of those places that is always on my to-recommend list for out-of-towners.
Zaytinya (www.zaytinya.com) – This is recommended as a place to go to for dinner. I wholeheartedly second the comments about how this Penn Quarter (where do they come up with these names?) locale feels like an NYC joint except that, frankly, there’s tons more space here for folks to crowd up than at most Manhattan establishments. To me, it sort of feels as though it is trying to “be New York” and to cater to the younger hip D.C. crowd that decided that they didn’t want to live further north.
The bar is huge and usually packed and the tables are close together, but the food is what made me want to try this place when I first heard about it. The small plates and wide variety of tasty Mediterranean (mostly Turkish) menu items make this great for groups and for those who like options. As a big fan of this cuisine, I was pleased to see it make it to D.C. Warning: it doesn’t take reservations so you’ll have to wait at peak time.
Café Milano (www.cafemilanodc.com) – I haven’t been here in forever. While I can’t figure out why the author of this article couldn’t find a single place to recommend in Northwest until he ate dinner on his second night in town, I can’t fault his choice in cuisine. One of the surprises of Washington is that its good Italian places are very good. The other end of the spectrum is completely awful. Definitely go with this tried and true selection and spend a night out in Georgetown in the bargain (which you probably haven’t done in a while), dreaming about how you always imagined you’d buy a townhouse here. I don’t recommend running “The Exorcist Stairs” until at least an hour after you’ve eaten.
National Gallery of Art (www.nga.gov/ginfo/cafes.shtm) – Yes, the museum cafeterias even have their own special site on the NGA homepage – no starving artists here. The food at these restaurants has always been serviceable rather than spectacular. With a dearth of places to eat around the Mall, they provide a nice respite from tromping around to all the rooms in the East and West Wing galleries.
Hey, get going, the exhibits are all viewable for free in Washington! With New York museums jacking up their prices for entry to their collections ($20.00 “suggested” for the Met?!), there’s no excuse not to try to see what’s on display in D.C. Have you seen Van Gogh’s “Roses” yet? It’s gorgeous. Then, you can see the Hope Diamond at the Museum of Natural History, which you haven’t done since that elementary school field trip.
Buon viaggio e buon appetito!

Ah…Crabs…mmm…yum – Crabfest 2006

Just to break up the flow of my usual posts, and because I recently got back from spending time in Virginia with my family (always a source of inspiring, if unusual, thoughts), I was wondering if I should do something clever for this post like write an Ode to Old Bay® Seasoning. Then, I thought about it and decided that that might just be a little bit too weird so I’ve coming up with this haiku instead:

Container yellow, blue, and red
Hiding savory spice blend
To eat with sweet white crabmeat
While this brief spurt of creative inspiration might seem odd, devotion to this spice mix is very great in some parts of the country. My brother was even planning to pick up some of it to bring it back to London so that he’s not left empty-handed in case he or his wife gets a craving for a taste of home.
Growing up in a mid-Atlantic seaboard state, it was a staple found in everyone’s cupboard, or so it seemed. It was just natural to find it there (but then, so did was seeing a can for bacon drippings stored in the fridge, as well). Surprisingly, I don’t have any in my New York kitchen.  Up here, I don’t think I would ever find a use for it, but then, I might be too crab-specific about its flavor and point of reference. I’m a bit of snob about crab and skeptical anytime I see “Maryland Crab Cakes” on a menu. I want to meet the crab. I want to hear it say “Bal-mer.” If not, it’s poseur crab to me. It will be shunned.
One of Old Bay®’s chief uses, naturally, given the title is with Chesapeake Bay crabs – sprinkled on top during the cooking process and served on the side when eating the steamed goodies. Despite the over-fishing of the species (some of which I personally blame on the new, wide-spread popularity of soft-shell crabs, but that, for the record, is a personal bias) and the consequent higher prices for those that are being caught, my family has managed to keep up its annual tradition of reunion/crab feast during the summer months.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, my mother’s rule for the “official” season, whenever a majority of the clan can get together, we children put in a bid for crabs. The best thing about this gathering is that it also serves as a catch-up feast and general open house where other relatives and friends drop by for a chat and a laugh, and of course for the crabs.  This year, my parents decided not to go to the wharf in Southeast Washington, D.C., as the specimens found there have been quite small of late (and I bet some haven’t even been the legal size to be sold). They went to a local seafood place where they can also get them cooked to order. Although this takes the fun out of it for those who like to pick the crab that they will personally eat, judging which one is the feistiest of the lot, it also means that no one has to clean up the crab pot as well.

For us, this event has always been a way to say “welcome to the family.” One in-law who passed the test with more than flying colors early in the dating game is my sister-in-law. She is a champion crab-cleaner. She is a pro. She is a machine. Her endurance at the table (with so many people in our family, we have to rotate seats to accommodate everyone) is legendary. This year’s feast was also a bit special as it was my newest niece’s first one. Baby loved her first bite of crab. Next year, I think we may have to find another place at the dining room table. We may just have a new sheriff in town.

Buon appetito!

Let’s have S’mores Fun

Textbook S’more

In case you missed it, this past Thursday, August 10th, was National S’mores Day. If you type this string into Google™, you will come up with quite a few references to this tasty, gooey treat as well as some stories about its origins. I will leave all of that, and the link above, to those of you who may wish to explore the history of s’mores in more detail.  For those of you not familiar with this item, it is a crunchy, crumbly confection made with graham crackers, chocolate (a Hershey®’s plain milk chocolate candy bar, to be specific), and marshmallows (toasted, not singed in my book). Its construction is a careful process with the hot marshmallow melting the chocolate and the whole thing held together by the graham crackers on top and bottom.

Toasting Marshmallows

I don’t really have a specific memory of the first time I had one of these concoctions, but it must have been on some camping trip or other. I have to say that I wasn’t immediately hooked, which is a surprise given my sweet tooth. I’m more of a “deconstructionist” s’mores eater, if you will, preferring to eat each component separately or, truthfully, just the chocolate and the melted marshmallow, leaving out the graham cracker completely.

Marshmallow Toasting Fork
For me, I think part of it is that I’m more of a marshmallow “toaster” as opposed to a “burner,” as my brother-in-law put it so delicately when we were testing out the s’mores kits that my mother had found at L.L. Bean®. Rather than thrust one of the billowy, white orbs full-on into the flames (or hot coals in our case), catching it on fire and allowing the marshmallow to develop a black, blistering, crusty exterior, I am the type who will sit there, patiently, turning my marshmallow on the end of a pointed stick or skewer, daintily toasting each side until it reaches a specific shade of golden brown.
Rotating Fork
This method drives one of my sisters completely crazy. I think on one occasion she actually took my stick and rammed it into the fire, destroying my handiwork and leaving me with a blackened shell, underneath which lurked the gooey marshmallow heart. I was not happy with this.  All of this came back to me this weekend when I was back at my parents’ house and we were trying out these aforementioned s’mores kits. My mother had even found a rotating skewer for those who, like me, want to make sure that each side of the marshmallow has its appropriate time allotment so that one doesn’t get too browned or burnt, as the case may be. Unfortunately, someone else called dibs on that utensil so I didn’t get to try it this time.
S’mores Kit
The verdict? Well, I think it was a bit unnecessary to pre-break the graham crackers in half, as the kit did. The Hershey®’s chocolate was the same as it always is. The marshmallows, however, were, I have to say, disappointing. It was as though a regular-sized one was chopped in half (see picture). This had all sorts of ramifications as part-way through the toasting process my marshmallow started to sag off of the skewer, only to be rescued from the coals by my quick-thinking cousin who grabbed a graham cracker to catch it before it fell.  Other than that, as the first picture in the post shows, the kit did create a bog-standard, scout-regulation s’more. As for taste? Well, let’s just say that after one bite and the mosquito bites that I managed to accumulate from being outside while toasting the marshmallows, I could have been back at camp.

Buon appetito!

We Are What We Eat – Food Musings

Remember when deciding what to eat every day was a relatively easy process? I’m not just talking about when you were all still living in your parents’ homes. In that case the answer usually was, “Whatever I decide to fix,” courtesy your mother/father/primary caregiver. [Hence the peas episode I wrote about several months ago.]

For the most part, as soon as you developed the ability to control what you put in your mouth, you ate what you craved (or ‘fancied’ for those readers in the UK), right? Certain moods or feelings match the foods that you want. What I’m talking about here is more the point at which we learned about how to eat and what was supposedly good for us to eat.
While there is no one, sure-fire way that I’ve found to figure it all out, it was interesting to note that this month’s issue of Food & Wine chose to highlight “How to be an Eco-Epicurean.” There are articles about various restaurants, tips about green products, recipes that are supposed to be healthier. Celia Brooks Brown, an American based in the UK, talks about vegetarian cooking. I took a course from her at Books for Cooks when I lived in London, and have always thought that she has some great food ideas.
I’ve been a long-time subscriber to the magazine so it was interesting to see them try to tackle this topic. This comes during an era when there is a major battle over the production of fois gras in the United States and bans on imports of Caspian Sea caviar have been implemented. It also comes during the period when the Greenmarkets in New York are celebrating their 30th birthday, as I wrote about a few weeks ago.
So, how do we figure out what we are supposed to be eating and how much of it is good for us to eat? Do you recall 4-4-3-2 Mulligan Stew*? Did you have that little workbook where for a week you had to fill out what you ate at each meal and then see if it fit into the food groups? Weren’t those cartoons kind of weird and creepy?
I’m sure that Fairfax County cared what I was eating and that I was getting a balanced diet prior to my entering 4th grade, but that was when they rolled that particular nutritional program out to us (along with the first of weeks of coursework on the American Civil War, but that is another story entirely). That was also the first time I had actually had to think about and consider how and what I was eating. Those school lunches (fish sticks, Jello® cups, Friday’s pizza squares, and all) were, I’m sure, part of the whole nutritional process. Even Salisbury steak must have fit in there somewhere, as well.
During elementary (or primary) school, these lunches were pretty standard. Then, in intermediate and high school we were able to make other selections. If I decided in secondary school to have French fries and a milkshake for lunch, no one was there to stop me. [For the record, I think I did that only a few times.] The lessons of that health unit had faded quickly during the intervening years.
Then, recently, we were told by the U.S. government that that wasn’t right after all, we were now supposed to follow the food pyramid. All that early nutritional education was just thrown away. I’ve tried to work with the parameters that the pyramid lays out, but I quickly decided I’d need to take more advanced mathematics to get everything to fit together. It was a bit too fussy to me. How did it all get so complicated?
To top it off, we’ve had loads of scares about the safety of our food and issues over what and how we should be eating it. Organics, locally-produced, cruelty-free, free-range. It can all be a lot to, ehem, digest, when all one is trying to do is to put a healthy meal on the table. I try to eat as best I can, but it can sometimes be really challenging, given a busy, time-compressed lifestyle. [I’m also one of those people who prefer to get my daily nutrients from foodstuffs rather than taking pills to balance it all out.]
As The Smiths once sang, “Meat is Murder,” but it goes much deeper than that. Food has become very political and what we put in our bodies has become a more complex issue. Trends in food preparation and production influence what is available for us to feed our families. Shortages and bans (like that on beef products following the mad cow scare in Europe) raise the prices of items we might even consider to be the staples (as can happen with bad crop yields of citrus fruits in Florida). There even seem to be “fashionable” food items each year that hit the markets like the interest in ramps, garlic scapes, and diver sea scallops.
Elie Krieger did an entire show on the Food Network called “Out of Exile.” In it she cooked with food items that we’d all been told previously to put on our “naughty” lists. Now, the evidence has shown otherwise, that we can eat those things, as long as we don’t overindulge in them. This doesn’t make the issue of what to eat any less complex when the rules keep changing on us all the time between what are “good” and what are “bad” foods.
But my overall philosophy is one that I’ve heard others who try to guide those who feel overwhelmed by all this nutritional information: everything in moderation and nothing to excess. Sometimes it works and sometimes I eat a whole small batch of cookies in a few days, but, in general, this is something by which I do try to live. Hey, even Julia Child admitted to a fondness for a burger every once in a while!
*Just for the Record:
Mulligan Stew is an actual dish. Typing that phrase in Google™ will come up with several versions and recipes. I think that there might have been a recipe at the back of the workbook we used in 4th grade, but I can’t seem to find my copy at my parents’ house. I’m not sure that I’ve actually ever made it.
Special Shout-Outs:
RM – you worried about the melon and proscuitto appetizer being a bit overdone. This month’s Bon Appétit magazine has the River Café team listing it in their easy menu suggestion.
Jax – I’m not sure if they did it just for you or not but that same magazine gave Matisyahu’s album Youth as a recommendation for their summer playlists.
Kitchen Witch Tips:
Another one of my favorite food magazines is BBC Good Food. In New York City, various branches of Barnes & Noble carry it. It has other great suggestions using local produce and can be a good source of ideas for doing meals on a budget. It also carries a variety of articles on making better food choices each month.
To see what your “Eco Footprint” is, you can go to www.earthday.net/footprint/info.asp. I found it interesting to see the impact of one’s lifestyle on the planet. Admittedly, not everyone and every community has the resources to be extremely conscientious, which the site acknowledges in its introductory section.