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  1. Meal Kit Hack: Sun Basket’s Spanish paella with tofu, mushrooms, and peas

    October 19, 2018 by marga

    Last night, while making a hack of Sun Basket’s Spanish paella with tofu, mushrooms, and peas, I discovered why meal kits can be great for those home cooks among us that are not great at paying at attention at what we are doing.  I totally messed up this recipe because I did a hack job on it.  The results was a meal that lacked flavor. My vegan daughter ate it, but was not happy with it.  And believe me, as a vegan, her standards are not exactly high.

    I had chosen this recipe to hack because my vegan daughter had eaten a vegan frozen paella that she liked before and because most of the ingredients were easy to get.  Alas, that did not mean I actually got them.

    Mistake #1: First,  I went shopping for this at my neighborhood discount grocery store which didn’t have frozen peas!  I decided to skip them because peas are mostly filler, but still, they add a nice color to any dish plush some vitamins.

    Mistake #2: I didn’t check my pantry before I shopped for this recipe, so it wasn’t until I started cooking that I realized that I didn’t actually have rice! How do you forget that?  True, I don’t cook much with rice because of its high glycemic index, but still that’s a pretty major thing to not realize I was out of.   And given that rice is the MAIN component of paella, you’d think the dish would have been doomed from that point on.  I did find barley while looking for the rice – something I’d bought ages ago and never did anything with it – so I decided to substitute with that.

    Then, as I was making the paella, I realized I didn’t have the required paprika either!  OK, in this case, I did have a paprika jar with traces of paprika inside it, but not enough for even the teaspoon this recipe called for.  No matter, I decided to use whatever paprika I had in the jar and add oregano.  Indeed, the paella recipe I use (or used to use when I still cooked rice regularly) calls for both paprika and oregano, and the latter is stronger flavor.

    Mistake #3: What makes meal kits great is that most of the ingredients are given to you in the exact amounts that you will use.  Now, for normal people who read recipes carefully, this is probably not a big deal – but I’m not a normal person.  So while I knew the recipe called for 3/4 cups of rice, and I wrote down that I needed 3/4 cups of rice, when it came time to actually adding the rice-cum-barley to the recipe, I doubled it in my mind and added 1 1/2 cups instead!  What this ultimately meant is that there weren’t enough flavor agents (mostly leek and garlic) to flavor this dish sufficiently.  Mind you, I tried to spice it up by adding extra salt, garlic powder and more oregano, but it never quite made it.

    Mistake #4: My real mistake, however, was in choosing to make this particular recipe for paella.  Chances are, it was never going to work.  What makes paella great is the saffron flavoring, and this one didn’t call for it (probably because saffron is so expensive).  I didn’t have any at home either (I swear I used to have some but I can’t find it!).  Chances are, this recipe was never going to turn out.

    Still, my out of pocket costs for this recipe were just $5.50, which is still less than half of what the meal kit would have cost  There are leftovers for at least 3 more meals – and while I think normally my vegan daughter might skip eating it given how unenthusiastic she was about it last night, we’re out of vegan food at home, so she’ll probably be forced to have it for dinner again tonight 🙂


    1 leek 2 leeks (used  1) $2.50
    3 cloves garlic 3 cloves garlic pantry
    4 oz cremini mushrroms 8 oz button mushrooms $2
    3 oz grape tomatoes grape tomatoes $1
    3 oz roasted red peppers Skipped  –
    1/2 tsp turmeric 1/2 tsp turmeric pantry
    1 tsp sweet paprika 1 tsp oregano pantry
    3/4 cup rice 1 1/2 cups pearl barley pantry
    1 cup vegetable broth 2 cups vegetable broth pantry
    3/4 lb tofu 1 lb tofu $2
    3-4 springs leafy herb 3 basil leaves pantry
    1/2 cup peas Skipped

    Pantry = an ingredient that I had at home already (whether in the pantry or the fridge).

    Sun Basket is a Northern California based meal kit service started by a Slanted Door chef. They use organic produce – which I didn’t. They have vegan and vegetarian options as well as meals appropriate to other specific diet plans and seems to have the highest ratings among the services out there.  I signed up for it and will be trying it next week.  Use my referral link for $40 off your first delivery (I will also get a $40 credit for future deliveries).

  2. Hello Fresh Hack: Balsamic Rosemary Steak with Garlic Herb Toasts and a Roasted Pear Salad on the Cheap + Salad Recipe

    October 17, 2018 by marga



    Today I ended up with some extra top sirloin.  This meant I had to figure out what to do with it and I had so much fun making hacking the Plated recipe for French onion soup burgers, that I decided to hack something from Hello Fresh this time, as I’ve started trying their kits. I decided on this recipe for “Balsamic Rosemary Skirt Steak with Garlic Herb Toasts and a Roasted Pear Salad” because I had most of the ingredients at home and it was one of their “premium” recipes, which cost an additional $12 per 2-person meal.  There is no way that I’m going to spend $36 on a meal for two without leftovers that I have to cook myself, unless a rack of lamb or some prime beef is involved, so I can only try these recipes by making them with my own ingredients.

    Once again, I shopped at my neighborhood grocery store so I had to make some drastic substitutions:

    Hello Fresh Recipe My Version My cost
    1 pear 1 bag Bosc pears $3
    1 demi-baguette 1 loaf sourdough bread $2
    2 shallots 1 large shallot Pantry
    1/4 oz rosemary 2 tsp chopped rosemary homegrown
    2 Tbsp. garlic herbed butter 4 Tbsp. garlic herbed butter pantry/homemade
    12 oz skirt steak 12 oz top sirloin $6.50
    3 tsp balsamic vinegar 3 tsp red wine vinegar pantry
    chicken demi glace 1 tsp. beef base pantry
    2 oz arugula 2 oz mixed greens leftover
    2 oz Ricotta salata  4 oz blueberry goat cheese  $3


    In all, I spent $15.50 on the meal, less than half of what I would have spent if I’d bought the kit.  I was lucky that all the substitutions worked great.  Bosc pears are actually preferable for baking as they keep their shape.  Sourdough bread (which I’d bought the day before and not used) is tastier than the plain baguettes and the croutons came out great.   While I, myself, prefer skirt take, the top sirloin worked just as well and it was more tender than skirt steak would have been.  And the blueberry goat cheese on the salad (for which I used the mixed greens I bought for my last hacked recipe) was a revelation.   I did have to make the herbed butter myself, but it wasn’t too hard.  I simply chopped a few fresh herbs I had around the house (rosemary from the side yard, basil and some of the living herbs thyme I bought for my last recipe) in addition to a couple garlic cloves and mixed it with softened butter.

    The overall meal was very good, and I loved that it had three elements: steak with a sauce, a grown up salad and herbed garlic bread – but it was a pretty laborious meal to make for that reason.  Still, we both enjoyed the steak and the sauce certainly added flavor to a cut that I think usually needs it (as opposed to NY steak or rib eye which just need salt to be great).  The herbed garlic bread was quite good and I very much enjoyed the salad.  The blueberry goat cheese, in particular, was a revelation.  I’d never had thought of putting it on salad otherwise, but it worked perfectly well.

    But hacking this meal also had me make a mistake: instead of using balsamic vinegar, which I did have in my pantry, I just used regular red wine vinegar for both the steak and the salad.  If I had been using Hello Fresh’s own ingredients I wouldn’t have been able to make the mistake.  I’m sure the balsamic vinegar would have improved the flavor of both.

    Below is my recipe for the salad.  If you want to try this kit without having to make it yourself,  you can use this link to get $40 off your delivery of Hello Fresh (it’s a referral link that will also give me credit towards a future purchase).

    Roasted Pear Salad with Blueberry Goat Cheese

    • 2 Bosc pears
    • 1/3 French or sourdough baguette or 1/4 bread loaf
    • 1 Tbsp olive oil + more for drizzling
    • salt & pepper to taste
    • 2 oz mixed greens, washed and dried
    • 2 tsp red or balsamic vinegar
    • 2 oz blueberry goat cheese

    Preheat oven to 400F.  Line a baking pan with aluminum foil.

    Cut off ends from the pears, cut them in half and core them; then cut the pairs into 1/2″ wedges.

    Cube the bread into 1/2″ cubes.

    Place pears on one side of the prepared baking sheet and bread cubes in the other.  Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Bake until the bread is toasted, about 8 minutes.  Remove the bread cubes to a salad bowl.  Turn the pear slices and continue cooking until soft, about 10 more minutes.  Remove from the oven.

    Add the mixed greens to the bowl with the croutons.  Add 1 Tbsp. olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  Toss.  Top with pears and crumble the goat cheese over the salad. Serve.


  3. Hello Fresh Sweet ‘N’ Smoky Pork Chops with Apple Carrot Slaw, Mashed Potatoes, and Cherry Sauce Review + Sauce Recipe

    October 16, 2018 by marga

    Sweet 'N' Smoky Pork Chops

    Photo borrowed from Hello Fresh

    We are not pork eaters, both because commercial farming of pigs – fairly intelligent animals – is just brutal and because we don’t find pork particularly flavorful meat, but there weren’t many exciting menu choices in the week I chose to try Hello Fresh,  so we went for this meal kit.  We were pleasantly surprised.  While I was a bit disappointed on how small the boneless pork chops were – specially after I cut off the strip of fat on one side -, the cinnamon-paprika spice mix gave them a very nice flavor, in particular when topped with the cherry sauce.  I don’t like cherry, but loved this sauce and would think it’d go well with turkey as well.    The mashed potatoes could have been better – the kit included small potatoes that couldn’t really be peeled, and I prefer peeled potatoes in my mash.  The slaw was pretty good, but not earth shattering.

    The meal was also fairly easy to make, the carrots come pre-shredded, which saves a lot of time.  The apple was fresh and delicious.  All the ingredients seemed to be high quality and the recipe was easy to make.

    In all, this was a good dish.

    I’m more likely to pay $12 for it than for the tacos I had before.

    If you’d like to try Hello Fresh, you can use this link for $40 off your first box (it will also give me $30 towards a future delivery).

    Cherry Sauce Recipe

    enough for 2 chops

    • 1/8 tsp hot paprika
    • 1/8 tsp cinnamon
    • 3 Tbsp. cherry jam
    • 1/2 tsp water
    • 1/2 tsp vinegar
    • 1/2 Tbsp. butter
    • salt & pepper to taste

    Combine in a microwave safe bowl the paprika, cinnamon, jam, water and vinegar.  Microwave on high for 45 seconds.  Stir in the butter and season with salt and pepper.

  4. Hello Fresh + Pork and Poblano Tacos Review & Kiwi Salsa Recipe

    October 16, 2018 by marga

    It’s true, sometimes all it takes is one trial.  After trying the Plated meal kit for Vietnamese Meatballs with Chile-Lime Dressing,  and being impressed by the convenience and taste, I decided it was finally time for me to join the 21st century and try  other meal kits.  There are a myriad of companies selling these, of course, but I settled on Hello Fresh because I’d gotten tons and tons of coupons for it with other stuff I’d bought online.

    I didn’t look at the menu until after I signed up & paid, and I was actually disappointed once I saw the options.  Most of the offerings seemed to be mainstream American food with a little twist.  I was further disappointed that many of the recipes that sounded more exciting and that included steak or other more expensive ingredients had a $12 premium! A $12 pp meal is no bargain, but at $18 pp, we’re talking about restaurant prices.  Still, I was able to find a couple of recipes that sounded good.  If you want to try Hello Fresh, use this link and you’ll save $40 off your first delivery (and I’ll get $30 off my next),  which gives you a better deal than the promo I used!  Remember to cancel within 2 days of getting your first box to not be charged again.



    I wasn’t expecting much of this dish based on the title.  We’re not big taco eaters at home.  However, this dish was better tasting than it had any right to be.  The kiwi salsa was particularly refreshing and unusual, and I can imagine making it again (recipe follows).  I had never thought of mixing sour cream with lime juice before, but it was a good idea and I’ll do it again as well..

    The pork itself was pretty tasty and while the Mexican spice almost gave it the flavor of Mexican chorizo, it was mild and tasty.  This is not my favorite flavor, however.

    The meal made four tacos, so two per person.  It was just the *right* amount of food to satisfy me, though as I had an early dinner, I was hungry later.  So far this have been the same problem with all the kit meals I’ve made.

    In all, I thought the meal was great for the discounted price I paid for it, but I can get very good tacos for less than $12 pp at my corner Mexican restaurant (albeit not with this great kiwi salsa).

    Kiwi Salsa

    • 1 Roma tomato, chopped
    • 1 Kiwi, chopped
    • 1 small onion, chopped
    • 5 cilantro stalks, leaves removed & coarsely chopped
    • 1 small lime, halved
    • salt & pepper to taste

    In a bowl, mix together the chopped tomato, kiwi, onion and cilantro.  Squeeze a lime half on the chopped vegetables.  Season with salt and pepper and mix well.


  5. Plated Review: Vietnamese Beef Meatballs over Rice with Chile-Lime Dressing

    October 16, 2018 by marga

    Vietnamese Beef Meatballs

    This photo comes from Plated.

    A few weeks ago, I discovered that Safeway delivery sold Plated meal kits.  I had always been curious about these kits, but had never bought them because they seemed too expensive for what they were and I was afraid the portions were too small.  Plus, if I’m going to go through the trouble of cooking, I want to have leftovers for the next day!

    Still, I was curious so I bought one that sounded good and it ended up being delicious, far better than I expected.  The portion was *just right*, though, as I suspected, I started feeling hungry later in the evening (this has happened with all the kit meals I’ve made, and it may be my fault for staying awake until so late).

    The meal was fairly easy to make, though this particular one necessitated lots of chopping of different ingredients.  Fortunately, I discovered that I could save myself from washing lots of little bowls by using a sectional serving tray for the chopped produce.    After that, it’s just a matter of following the very detailed instructions.  The kit includes a card with photos and step by step instructions on how to make the meal.  You can also find the recipe at the Plated website.

    The ingredients all seemed to be very good quality and, as I mentioned, the results were delicious.

    I feel conflicted, however, about the packaging of the meal.  The Safeway version comes in a large plastic box with everything you need.  It would be hard to fit more than one or two in the fridge, however.  Still, it was super convenient to just take it out and have everything ready.  Most of the ingredients come wrapped in plastic, however, so there seems to be a lot of plastic waste.  The box itself is recyclable in theory, but apparently plastic recycling is no longer happening much in the US – low oil prices means it’s cheaper to make new plastic -, so a lot of it ends up in landfills.  So there is a pretty high environmental cost at getting these kits at Safeway (I don’t know how their packaging is for their subscription).

    At Safeway, this kit was about $20 for a kit serving 2 people, and because it came as part of my Safeway order, “shipping” was free.  My Safeway delivery offers 3-5 Plated kits per week, and they vary in cost from approx $17 to $23, depending on the ingredients.  If you subscribe to Plated, their two-person kits cost $24 plus an additional $8 shipping if you buy only 2 kits at the time – shipping is free if you order more.  Kits for 3 and 4 people cost $30-$40 respectively with free shipping.  While the kits are generally cheaper at Safeway, they have much less variety – only 3 to 5 kits per week.

    This particular recipe  didn’t have any strange ingredients, so it should be fairly easy to hack and do at home.


  6. Grand European Pasteurized Processed Gruyerère Cheese Product – Review

    October 15, 2018 by marga

    I found this item today at Grocery Outlet San Leandro, while looking for actual Gruyère cheese for a recipe.  Normally, I would stay away from anything that calls itself a “cheese product,” but nothing in the ingredient list seemed scary (though it does contain sodium phosphates, emulsifying salts and sorbic acid) so I figured, why not?

    It was a great choice. This cheese tastes *just* like Laughing Cow cheese, but it’s more solid.  You can cut it into slices and have it melt on your burgers.   As other processed cheeses, it melts beautifully.  It’s also damned tasty to eat by itself – and I’m thinking of including it on my Christmas Eve dinner cheese plate.

    It turns out that processed cheeses can last a long time because they have preservatives added.  Plus they are fattier.  Amazingly, a lot of the cheeses we know – such as Mozarella, Cheddar, Brie, Camembert and Swiss – are processed cheeses.  Who knew?


    Amazingly, I haven’t been able to find any references to this cheese in the internet.  Grand European is a trademark of Pacific Cheese Co., located in Hayward (next door to San Leandro), which distributes it.  Costco sells a Havarti and a Gouda with the same label.  This Gruyere cheese products says it’s made in Germany.

    My fear is that this cheese will be difficult to find – cheeses at Grocery Outlet come and go.  Fortunately, it’s very cheap ($2.20 for about 7 oz) and it will last until March next year.


  7. Plated Hack: French Onion Burgers with Salad

    October 15, 2018 by marga

    I have recently started trying “meal kits” and while I love the idea of simple meals I can make in under an hour, I hate how expensive they are.  At $20-$28 per entree for two people, they cost about the same as take out and there are no leftovers!  Still, they are super convenient.

    Today, I decided to try to recreate one of those kit-meals buying the ingredients myself to see how they worked and whether I saved money.  Now, if you are a professional billing $500/hour (or even $100), the time spent at the supermarket hunting these ingredients will surpass any savings you may have – so these meals are really ideal for people for whom time is literally money.  But my time is far cheaper than that.

    I chose this recipe for French Onion Burgers with Gruyere and Arugula because I had read good things about it while looking through Plated reviews and it has fairly common ingredients, which I hoped I could easily find at the quirky discount grocery store near my house.  I wasn’t able to get all the ingredients I needed, but I think the substitutions worked well enough.  I haven’t tried the Plated kit dish, so I don’t know how it compares to mine as far as flavor goes, but I don’t think it’s likely to have been significantly better.  My version was far cheaper, however. While the Plated meal for 2 costs between $22 and $28, depending on where you buy it, I spent a mere $15 in groceries and had enough food for 3 people (alas, neither of my kids would eat this, so we have leftovers for tomorrow) with groceries remaining.

    Here is a list of the ingredients in the recipe, what I bought and the price.

    PLATED Ingredient My Substitution Cost
    Beef Stock, 1 container Beef broth, 1/2 cup pantry
    Yellow Onion, 1 small Yellow Onion, 1 regular $0.70
    Thyme, 1/8 oz. Living thyme plant $2
    Lemon, 1 Lemon, 1 $0.80
    Ground Beef, 12 oz Ground Beef, 16 oz $3.50
    English muffins, 2 English muffins, 3 $2.80
    Baby Arugula, 3 oz Mixed Greens, 5 oz $3
    1 Tbsp Flour, 1 Tbsp pantry
    Gruyere, 2 slices Processed Gruyere Cheese product, 7 oz $2.20
    Unsalted butter, 3 packets 1 Tbsp pantry
    Dijon mustard, 2 packets Coarse Dijon mustard pantry
    TOTAL  $15

    Note that I had to substitute baby arugula for mixed greens as all the packages of baby arugula at the grocery store had expired yesterday.  The price was the same than for the mixed greens, however.

    Where I did save a lot of money was by using “Gruyere cheese product” instead of Gruyere.  Unfortunately, my discount grocery store didn’t have it and I decided to substitute with this product as at least it had Gruyere as its main ingredient.  Alas, it didn’t take anything like Gruyere and rather it was a more solid version of Laughing Cow cheese.  Delicious, but far cheaper and different than real Gruyere.  In reality, I don’t think the substitution mattered – the flavor of the onions was so strong that I doubt any cheese would have broken through.  The cheese did add to the creaminess of the burger, however.

    All in all, I felt the burgers were interesting and tasty but the combination of burger and fresh onion flavors wasn’t a big winner for either me or my husband.  I sort of liked the English muffing for a bun substitution, but that’s because I was smart enough to eat the burger with knife and fork.  My husband didn’t and wish he had a bun instead.

    Neither of us were that fond of the lemon juice/olive oil dressing on the greens, however.

    Still, I’m left with 4 English muffins I can have for breakfast, some newly discovered and delicious cheese “product” I’ll eat as a snack (indeed, it’s so fun and unexpected that I may serve it as part of my Xmas cheese course), some more greens to eat as a salad and a very cool thyme plant.  I can’t complain at all.

  8. Three More Cuisines Go Up: Cohauila, Chiapas and Florence

    May 17, 2018 by admin

    These are three more “make up” cuisines I explored recently, which I had skipped when I originally cooked “C” and “F” cuisines, several years ago by now.

    For Chiapas, I made a delightful Pollo en Frutas

    For Coahuila, I made much less successful but literal enchiladas

    and for Florence, I made a pasta & beans dish and a braised beef dish.

    Check them out!

  9. Int’l Food Project Update: Campechana,

    May 13, 2018 by admin

    My international food project is going.  Slowly, even painfully so, but going.  I’m a bit behind on updating the website, but here are three cuisines that I finished some months ago but never got around to adding.   Two of these were “make up” cuisines, those that I skipped when I first reached them – either because I couldn’t find recipes or didn’t recognize them as cuisines.  Rather than making multiple dishes for each one of them, which would keep me from advancing through the alphabet, I decided to cook just one or two dishes.  This is what I made:

    For Assam, I made fried fish with rice, a very simple dish and yet one I couldn’t stop eating.

    For Campeche, I made fish in a green sauce.  Alas, I didn’t use the right fish and it disintegrated.  But the sauce was great.

    And I’m very happy to announce that I’ve started the “H” cuisines.  I am totally committed to even finish H before the end of the summer! Hey, I could get lucky and do it before the beginning of the summer, but let’s be realistic!

    And my first H cuisine is… Haiti!  Now that was fun!  You get five full recipes here, one particularly good.


  10. Hakka Tofu with Mushrooms

    May 13, 2018 by admin

    I was making Soy-braised Chicken and Mushrooms for my family, as part of my exploration of Hakka cuisine, and decided to try making it with tofu for my vegetarian daughter.  She liked it well enough, though did mention that the tofu didn’t quite absorb the broth and she didn’t think it was as flavorful as she’d liked. Perhaps seitan would be a better bet for this dish.


    • 6 dried shiitake mushrooms
    • 1 cups hot water
    • 1 Tbsps. vegetable oil
    • 1″ fresh ginger, peeled and thinly slivered
    • 1 Tbsps. minced garlic
    • 1 lb extra-firm tofu
    • 2 Tbsp kecap manis
    • 1/2 tsp salt
    • 1/4 tsp ground white pepper
    • 2 greens onions, including green tops, cut in 2″ lengths


    Soak dried mushrooms in hot water for 20 minutes to 2 hours. Remove mushrooms from the water, reserving both.  Squeeze out extra water from mushrooms, and cut mushrooms in half. Strain the water through a fine mesh to catch the sediment. Set both water and mushrooms aside.

    Heat oil over high heat in a wok. Add ginger and garlic and stir fry until the garlic starts to brown. Add tofu and stir fry for a couple of minutes. Add the mushrooms and the mushroom water. Add the kecap manis. Bring to a boil, then bring down heat to low, cover the wok and simmer until the tofu is warmed through, about five minutes.

    Using a slotted spoon, remove tofu and mushrooms from the pan and set aside. Bring heat to high and reduce cooking liquid until it’s about half a cup. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Add the green onions. Return tofu and mushrooms to the broth, warm if necessary, and then serve.