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Christmas Eve Dinner 2021: Moussaka Mediterranean Kitchen + Luke’s Grill

A wonderful Christmas Eve Dinner with some help from Luke’s Grill

This year, probably for the third time in two decades, I didn’t cook Christmas Eve dinner. I’m going through one of my anti-cooking spells, and the thought of making course after course of food I’d barely have time to eat before getting up to prepare the next one just wasn’t appealing. Plus, after the fiasco that was Thanksgiving Dinner, I wasn’t eager for a repeat. Moreover, with another COVID wave hitting us, we had decided that once again it would only be us having dinner.

So, I decided on take out – but what? This shouldn’t have been that hard a question, but I wanted something “special”. That meant something that we didn’t usually get for take out, something that I wouldn’t be able to make easily, something that could be eaten family style and something that would satisfy all our individual food issues. Deciding on a specific cuisine, much less a restaurant, was hard.

Ultimately, I decided upon Greek because it’s homey, it’s somewhat Christmasy and it can be served family style. We actually have two pretty good Greek restaurants in town, and rather than decide between them, we tried them both.

Items from the Zeus Platter from Luke’s Grill.

We ordered the Zeus Platter ($20) from Luke’s Grill. This appetizer combo came with Greek sausage, meatballs, tiropita, spanakopita, dolmades, tzaziki and abundant pieces of pita. Though it was a bit cold by the time we started eating it, I was quite pleased with both the sausages and the meatballs. The tiropita, phyllo dough cooked with herbed cheese, was also quite delicious, and I enjoyed the pita with the tzaziki. Unfortunately, my vegetarian daughter wasn’t in the mood for dolmades or spanakopita, so those went uneaten.

We got all our mains from Moussaka. I particularly enjoyed the Hunkar Beyendi or Sultan’s Favorite ($28), apparently an Ottoman specialty. The dish consists of a smoked eggplant and mozzarella puree topped with braised lamb and tomato sauce. It’s served with a rice/orzo combination. By the time I transferred it to a serving dish, the whole thing was mixed together but that’s how you are supposed to eat it anyway. It was delicious. I’m not a particular fan of eggplant, but it provided an amazing smokiness to the dish. The lamb was tender and flavorful and the whole dish just came together with homey umami. And it was just perfect for Christmas: it has too many elements for me to easily replicate and it’s too expensive for a regular take out meal, and thus provided the “specialness” I wanted from a Christmas Eve meal.

Manti

I was far more disappointed in the manti ($18), pasta filled with spiced beef and supposedly served with a garlic yogurt sauce, brown butter and fresh mint. The little dumplings were tasty, but they were very lightly sauced, and therefore way too dry to really enjoy. They quickly became monotonous. I wouldn’t order them from here again.

Two portions of the combo kebap (one kofta already eaten)

In order to get a good sampling of their offerings, we ordered the combo kebap ($29), which came with a meat skewer, a chicken skewer, a single kofte, a mixture of beef/lamb gyro meat, rice and a salad. The meat skewer was listed as a lamb skewer, but it was actually beef. It was very tender, very nicely spiced and just delicious – often times kebabs are dry, but this was not the case even when the leftovers were reheated.

The same cannot be said for the chicken kebaps. They were very tasty, but dry. Fortunately, the kofta was delicious.

Beef/lamb gyro meat

I’m totally in love with the beef/lamb gyro meat. I couldn’t tell a difference between each slice of meat, so I’m going to guess it was all lamb, but whatever it was was delicious. Also very tender and not dry, and perfectly seasoned.

Chicken shawarma

A dish of chicken shawarma ($20), also served with rice and salad, was equally delicious. Again, they seasoned it perfectly and managed to not make it dry.

Finally, I ordered a felafel wrap ($13) for my vegetarian daughter, and she was happy enough, though wouldn’t elaborate about it.

In all, it was a great meal and I’d order from here again for a special occasion meal.

Gateau Basque, perspective from above

We had two desserts, though we were too full to eat more than one that night, and then well after the meal. Early in my meal planning, when I still thought I’d actually cook Christmas Eve dinner, I had proposed making Gâteau Basque for dessert. My first trip with Mike after we got married was to Spain, where we spent several days in the Basque country. We had enjoyed an amazing gâteau basque at a restaurant in Aoiz, my great-grandparents’ hometown and the memory has lingered with Mike ever since. However, in the decades since, we’ve been unable to find a cake that matched those memories, either at a restaurant or at home. It’d been many years since our last try, so I was game to do it again.

This time I decided on a well reviewed recipe that I found on the internet. I was quite pleased with the flavor, both of the cake and the pastry filling, but I felt that the dough needed more flour – my daughter preferred the soft texture, however. In all, it was good but not as sublime as our memories of that cake in Aoiz.

I also bought a Tres Leches cake from Safeway, a favorite of all of us. I was lucky to get to eat a slice the next day.

Moussaka Mediterranean Kitchen
599 Dutton Ave, San Leandro
‭(510) 850-5020
Closed Mondays

Luke’s Grill
1509 East 14th St, San Leandro
510-614-1010
Closed Sundays

CookUnity Review

Great Tasting Ready-to-warm Single-Serve Meals

CookUnity is a new-to-me service that sends you ready-to-warm prepared meals, in single-serving trays. The meals can be warmed by microwaving them for 2-3 minutes or heating them in a pre-heated oven for 8-15 minutes. They are basically a competitor to Freshly, which I’ve reviewed before. They are, however, far superior in quality, flavor and variety. The meals taste very much like the leftovers from a high-quality, perhaps adventures, home meal. Indeed, despite the fact that they come pre-cooked and all in one tray, I’d say they rival the best meal kits.

Single-serve meals do serve a very niche clientele. They don’t really work for us as a family, now that our vegan daughter has gone away to college, though I might try it again when she comes home for winter break. They would also make a good choice for when/if we go back to working from an office.

The Food

CookUnity’s main selling point is the wide selection of prepared meals they offer. I counted 110 choices of dishes, more than any subscription meal kit or supermarket that I know. They run the gamut of proteins and cuisines, from the exotic to the mundane, from the high caloric, to the diet minded. There are ample choices for vegetarians, vegans and those who keep special diets.

The second selling point in the taste and quality. Everything we tasted ranged from good to very good. The meals included special ingredients, such as hand-made sausages and forbidden rice, and mostly offered a balance of meats to vegetables to carbs. All the nutritional values are listed so you can choose when you order.

We mostly got high-caloric meals and all of them were large enough to satisfy a big appetite for dinner. We even had leftovers a couple of times.

We tried both microwaving and heating them in the oven, and there wasn’t a huge difference in results – though the oven is better for flank steak.

The meals come with an expiration date of either 5 or 7 days, so if you are getting for the whole week you probably should look at the dates when you get them and prioritize the ones that will expire first.

As far as I can tell, CookUnity contracts with professional restaurant chefs in major cities where CookUnity has commercial kitchens, and the chefs conceive of the meals and prepare them. In addition to providing chefs with the kitchens, CookUnity also buys the ingredients, packages and ships the meals and is in charge of marketing and sales. All the chefs need to do is cook.

The Plans

CookUnity’s meals cost between $11 and $13.50 each depending on how many you ordered, I ordered 8 and paid $11.50 each (minus a coupon). The cost is competitive with meal kits and take out. The meals were definitely large enough to satisfy – but pay attention to calories. Shipping is free but they do charge taxes – albeit, judged by the amount, it doesn’t seem they included city taxes.

It is easy to skip meals, and you can even suspend your account for up to 2 months. Unsubscribing is simple as well.

The Packaging

CookUnity meals come in microwave and oven-save tray made out of paper waste product with a plastic seal. They are not compostable, but CookUnity claims they are recyclable. However, while they have the recycle symbol on them, they don’t have a number. I am thus guessing it is not recyclable at all. It’s a pity, because if they used wax instead of plastic, they probably could be composted and would eliminate a lot of waste.


The meals trays are covered by a plastic film that you throw away, and come with a paper sleeve listing the ingredients and nutrition facts, as well as cooking instructions and date of expiration, which can be recycled. Some meals have sauces or vegetables in removable plastic containers within the trays. You are supposed to remove these before you cook them. These containers are usually recyclable, or you can was them and use them yourself.

CookUnity ships their meals inside an insulated bag, with 3 small freezer packs in the bottom and 3 in the top. They say that the bag and freezer packs will be collected and re-used when you get your next set of meals (I’ve only done one week so far). This may be different in other areas.


The Shipping & Delivery

When I first ordered CookUnity they were shipping to my area through UPS. They were shipping on a Monday for Wednesday deliver. UPS was delayed with my first order, and they just sent it back. I got credit for the meals I didn’t get, which I used to order mostly the same meals a couple of weeks later.

Since then, they’ve changed deliveries in my area and now they apparently deliver the same day the food is prepared. I had no problems getting my meals the second time. Some of the bottom freezer packages had started to melt, and one of them came perforated and had started to leak fluid, but the meals were cold and nothing was damaged.

The Meals

These are the meals we tried, I’d have most of them again.

Handmade Merguez Sausage in Moroccan Couscous Stew with Harissa: A

by French chef Cedric Nicolas, former sous chef at Belle Vie Food & Wine in LA (now closed)

This was a very tasty dish. The merguez sausages were delicious, if much smaller than those shown, and the whole dish tasted very home made. Definitely a winner.

Moroccan Lamb Meatballs: B

by chef Dustin Taylor, last at AC Hotel in LA

My husband had this dish for lunch one day. He can’t remember eating it at all, so it wasn’t memorable. My own recollection is that he liked it but wasn’t enthusiastic.

Lamb Kebab with Turmeric Hummus and Roasted Sweet Potatoes: A-

by Kentucky born chef Akhtar Nawab, owner of Alta Calidad in New York, Otra Vez in New Orleans, and Prather’s on the Alley in Washington, DC

These were kofta-like rather than kebabs per se, as the lamb was ground and mixed with spices, but it was very tasty nonetheless. Kofta tend to be dry, and this was no exception, but it was no drier than pretty much every other one I’ve ever made or encountered. They came with a cumin spiced hummus, which tasted lightly of curry and was also very tasty. It worked as a dip for both the sweet potatoes and lamb. I’m not a huge fan of sweet potatoes, but these were quite good.

Braised Lamb Sabzi with Cumin Seed Rice: A

by Israeli chef Einat Admony, chef-owner of Balaboosta in NYC.

This dish tasted exactly what I expect lamb sabzi to taste. It’s a dish of Persian origin, tangy and fragrant with Middle Eastern spices.

Filipino Adobo Pork Ribs and Jasmine Rice: A

by Filipina chef Stacy Bareng, chef-owner of Tagalog Takeover pop up in LA

The ribs were very tasty, moist and tender. I also liked the rice quite a bit. It came with bok choy which I don’t like, but my dog does.

Gochujang Baby Back Ribs: B+

by Korean-American chef Esther Choi, chef-owner of Mokbar and Ms.Yoo in New York City

I liked these tangy and tender ribs and really enjoyed the sweet corn. The rice was just OK.

Hanger Steak and Coconut Forbidden Rice: A-

by Filipina chef Stacy Bareng, chef-owner of Tagalog Takeover pop up in LA

This was my favorite of the two hanger steak dishes we had. It’s also one we warmed in the oven. As you can see, it wasn’t cooked medium-rare as on the picture in the website, but the beef was tender and flavorful, and I could still taste the beef flavor. The forbidden rice was tasty and fun. The broccolini, however, didn’t work. It was chewy.

Garlic Hanger Steak with Roasted Vegetables and Avocado-Cilantro Lime Sauce: C

by NYC chef Andres Mendez

This was probably my least favorite dish of the bunch. The steak wasn’t very flavorful, and it was completely overwhelmed by the spicy sauce. The vegetables where OK, but one-dimensional. I wouldn’t order it again.

Herb Marinated Steak with Ratatouille and Rice Pilaf: C-

by chef Dustin Taylor, last at AC Hotel in LA

This is another strike-out by Dustin Taylor (who fortunately redeems himself with the next dish). I liked the texture of the beef, tender but somewhat chewy/tough, but it had practically no seasoning and it was almost tasteless. What is worse, the smell and flavor it did have was somewhat fishy. I don’t have any fish in the fridge, so it couldn’t have acquired it from something else. The pilaf was nice enough, but the ratatouille was mostly eggplant and zucchini, with little in the way of onions or peppers. It’s winter, so I understand the latter, but still! This is not a dish I’d order again.


Grilled Tagliata Steak with Arugula, Parmesan and Lemon: D

by NYC chef John DeLucie, chef at Bedford&co , Ainslie, and Empire Diner, The Lion, and The Waverly Inn

This is the 3rd subpar steak dish I get from CookUnity, and this helps to cement my opinion that steak just does not lend itself to being cooked in advance and re-heated. This steak was tough, a little chewy and not all flavorful. I did like that it came with a fresh side salad, but it also lacked flavor. I don’t complain often that a meal has too much steak and too little salad, but that was the case here. In all, I would not order it again. Note that your millage may vary, the one CookUnity steak we liked is one that we warmed in the oven rather than the microwave.

Braised Beef and Polenta: B+

by Filipina chef Stacy Bareng, chef-owner of Tagalog Takeover pop up in LA

On the one hand, there is nothing I can fault this dish for. It tasted exactly like what I expected it to taste. On the other hand, there are more delicious ways to braise beef, some wine and caramelized onions would have done wonders. Still, a satisfying meal.

Chicken Tagine: A-

by Israeli chef Einat Admony, chef-owner of Balaboosta in NYC.

This was a pretty good rendition of chicken tagine with couscous. The chicken was a little tough, but it was flavorful and the couscous was quite good when mixed with the vegetables.

Update: I got a coupon for CookUnity which arrived pretty much at the same time that I was tired of cooking, so I re-subscribed. These are the meals I’ve tried since the original review (more will be added):

Spiced Chicken With Pork Chorizo Roasted Peppers: A

by chef Dustin Taylor, last at AC Hotel in LA

This was a hearty and very satisfying dish. The chicken was nicely spiced, moist and tender. The rice was flavorful on its own and went well with the hearty chorizo/pepper mix. I’d definitely re-order it.

This post contains an affiliate link that gives you a discount and, if I’m subscribed at the point when you claim such discount, might give me one as well for future purchases. As always, look to see if there are better discount deals elsewhere.

Gobble Meal Kit Review: Butter Chicken With Basmati Rice & Naan Bread

8/10

I absolutely love Indian food, but I’m cursed with not being able to successfully replicate my favorite dishes – of which butter chicken ranks at the top. I’ve tried making it, and while the results weren’t bad, they were not nearly as good as those of my local Indian restaurants. I’ve also tried a number of commercial sauces, none of which can compare to restaurant-make. That’s why I was particularly impressed that Gobbled managed a very good butter chicken sauce, that rivals that at any of our local restaurants.

The kit was fairly easy to make: you cooked the pre-cubed chicken for a few minutes, then added the prepared butter sauce and cooked it for a few more. Pre-made rice was heated in the microwave and a single naan bread was supposed to be baked in the oven. I hate preheating a whole oven just for that, so I put it in the air fryer for 4 minutes. It was a bit crispy, but very good.

Finally, the kit came with a cucumber & tomato salad with a pre-made salad dressing. I don’t like cucumber and my husband doesn’t like tomatoes, so we ate our vegetables separately. The dressing was OK, but didn’t really have much to do with the rest of the meal.

In all, another very good Gobble meal.

HelloFresh Review: Italian Beef Melts

8/10

My final HelloFresh kit this week was Italian Beef Melts with Onion, Green Pepper, Mozarella & Roasted Potato Wedges. Once again, I was impressed at how tasty this dish was. HelloFresh has given me a new appreciation for how good simple American cuisine can be.

To make the sandwiches, you slice and sautée the onions and peppers, you cook the ground beef with Italian seasoning and beef base and then mix them together. The kit has you make garlic aioli by mixing mayo with garlic powder and garlic butter by mixing your own butter with that same garlic powder. Instead of the garlic powder, I minced some of my own garlic cloves and used that. The buns are toasted with the garlic butter and mozzarella cheese, you spread the mayo and then add the beef filling. They were filling and very tasty.

The side dish was HelloFresh ubiquitous oven baked potatoes – they were plain this time, but I added some Italian seasoning to make them tastier. I feel, however, that HelloFresh should have chosen a different vegetable. This dish was very carb heavy to begin with and very light in vegetables. Maybe zucchini chips would have been a better choice? I did like the potatoes, however.

Kit for four servings

I made this dish five days after receiving it and everything was still fresh.

This post contains a referral link, if you sign up you get a discount and I get a $10 credit if I’m subscribed to HF when you subscribe, which I probably won’t be.

Hello Fresh Review: Chicken in Dijon Sauce with Balsamic Greens, Walnuts & Grapes plus Garlic Bread

7/10

Hello Fresh often offers slight variations of the same dishes. I’ve encountered the Dijon sauce in this meal kit as a dill sauce and a chives sauce, both served on chicken breasts. I’m happy to say that the sauce is just as good without the herbs, though the kit makes about half as much sauce as you really need for this dish.

The garlic bread, made on a ciabatta bun, was very good as well – even though I had refrigerated the buns for four days by the time I made it. The reason was probably the copious amount of garlic butter it contained. HelloFresh doesn’t end you butter, so they’re very generous in their recipes with your own supplies. Here, each bun slice asked for a whole tablespoon of butter. Still, at least the results were worth it.

The main reason I’m giving this kit low grades was the salad. It was nothing special and I don’t think it went particularly well with the chicken.

The meal kit was easy enough to make, but the chicken half breasts were too thick to cook in the recommended time – they took me about 15 minutes to cook altogether. The ingredients were fresh, even though I cooked them four days after I received the box.

This post contains a referral link, if you sign up you get a discount and I get a $10 credit. Before you do, though, e-mail me as I may have credit for a free box to be sent to you.

HelloFresh Meal Kit Review: Mozzarella & Herb Chicken with Roasted Carrots & Buttery Couscous

8/10

This was my first HelloFresh kit in over a year, and an update on a Parmesan chicken kit I had in 2019. I’m glad to say it was an improvement. The mozarella-panko-Italian seasoning crust was delicious – so much so that my daughter ate a second chicken breast (I got a meal kit for four this time) and asked me to make it again. Indeed, the kit made enough breading for six breasts altogether, so I did make it again for her a couple of nights later.

The couscous, which I found to be rather tasteless last time, was cooked in chicken broth and lemon zest this time, and was very tasty. The copious butter didn’t hurt, of course. The carrots were OK, not exciting, but good enough.

The portion size was adequate for non-huge apetites or people with a carrot fetish. Among the three of us, we ate the whole 4-person meal kit, except for the carrots. There were lots and lots of big, fat carrots.

I should note that the instructions for this dish left out how long the chicken should cook for. Fortunately, I was able to figure it out by looking at the Parmesan chicken instructions. The answer is 15 minutes.

The ingredients were fresh, and overall I was quite happy with the meal kit. It should be easy enough to recreate.

This post contains a referral link, if you sign up you get a discount and I get a $10 credit. Before you do, though, e-mail me as I may have credit for a free box to be sent to you.

Gobble Meal Kits Review: Seared Salmon with Crispy Potatoes, Frisée & Lemon /Walnut Vinaigrette

I did not actually order this meal kit, and I was quite unhappy when I saw it added to my order online. Neither my daughter nor I like salmon, and I need my meal kits to at least serve two people. I e-mailed Gobble right away, and they gave me a credit for the cost of the meal. As it happened, they sent it to me with top sirloin instead of salmon anyway.

Overall, this meal kit was a disappointment – even free. It consisted of another tiny steak, pan grilled and then sparkled with some paprika sumac spice mixture which didn’t add anything. The steak was good, but boring. On the side was a salad of frisée lettuce, pan fried potato slices, walnuts and olives (I omitted these) in a rather pedestrian lemon gremolata. It wasn’t a bad meal, but I can accomplish the same thing by getting steak and ready-made-salad at the supermarket. Again, I have no one to blame but myself for selecting this meal. But really, I’ve had trouble finding exciting meals in Gobble – something I noticed as well last year.



I do have to commend Gobble for the freshness of their food items. I cooked this meal exactly one week after I got it, the beef was perfectly fine and the lettuce had barely started to wilt.

Gobble Meal Kit Review: Pan-Seared Steak with Chimichurri-Roasted Carrots & Sweet Peppers

My second Gobble meal kit this time was a little disappointing in its simplicity. I have no one to blame for this but myself, as I was the one that selected it, but it was the sort of meal that I could put together on my own without the need of a meal kit.

It consisted of a miniature top-sirloin steak, multi-colored carrots, sweet peppers and a slice of onion, a small jar of chimichurri sauce and some pepitas. All I had to do was cut the carrots in two, put the veggies in the oven with some chimichurri sauce and saute the steaks.

Because the meal was so simple, it all came to as how good the chimichurri sauce was. As an Argentine, I can’t say I was impressed. It was very tangy and didn’t really taste like chimichurri. If it had any oregano at all, I couldn’t taste it.

So the meal was OK, but it didn’t wow me. I should mention I cooked it 6 day after I got it and all the ingredients were still fresh.

Gobble Meal Kits Review: Classic Beef Bourguignon with Mashed Potatoes

It’s been a year since I last tried Gobble and I’m happy to report that it’s as good as ever – at least judged by the first meal I “cooked” since I renewed my subscription. As in the past, Gobble offers meal kits which are very fast to cook and put together because they rely on a lot of pre-cooked ingredients. But as you do cook the final product, you feel you’ve made the dish yourself – plus you get to enjoy the greater quality of ingredients that just don’t stand up well to reheating.



I’m a huge fan of beef bourguignon and I was very impressed with this recipe. It requited me to slice a few mushrooms, onions and baby carrots, saute them, and then mix them with an already made red wine sauce, beef broth and pre-cooked stewed beef. All simmered nicely for 6 minutes, while I reheated the pre-made and pre-seasoned mashed potatoes. The meat was tender and succulent, the sauce was nicely flavored and went well with the mashed potatoes and the freshly sauteed veggies were tasty. Basically, it was almost as good as homemade.


I look forward to the next Gobble meal. Currently, they cost $24 per 2-serving meal, plus $7 shipping.

This post contains a referral link, but Gobble has suspended its referral program.

Nature Nate’s 100% Pure Raw & Unfiltered Honey Review

Pretty Good

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I got this honey by mistake. I’d order a different one through Instacart, asked for yet another as a substitution, but ended up with this one all the same.

All in all, this taste like a pretty generic, uncomplex and yet very tasty honey. At 65°-70°F, it’s quite thin and flows very easily. It has a perfectly delicious, mild, not overly sweet, honey flavor. It seems like a sort of general purpose honey.

Despite its name, Nature Nate’s 100% Pure Raw & Unfiltered Honey is not really raw nor unfiltered. While the honey is not pasteurized, it is heated to some undisclosed temperature and studies have shown that heating for a short time will degrade the nutrients, enzymatic activity and water soluble vitamins in honey. So this honey is probably best left for uses that require heating it anyway – such as sweetening hot drinks or creating a syrup by mixing it with water and heating it.

Similarly, while this honey is “unfiltered,” it is strained. I’m guessing that what they mean is that the filter they use has holes too small for impurities to go through but too big for pollen.

My biggest concern with honey is adulteration. There is a big problem with adulterated honeys, and only one laboratory in the US has the capacity to test them. According to a lawsuit filed against Nature Nate’s in 2019, some of the samples of their honey were found to be adulterated with other syrups. That still means that other samples were fine, but it also means you can’t be assured you are getting what you paid for. The lawsuit, btw, was dismissed but on technical rather than substantive grounds.

In all, this is not a premium honey but it’s tasty enough and should serve most of your needs. If you are looking for a top grade raw honey, I’d probably hit the farmer’s market instead.

Note: the link to Instacart is a referral link, if you subscribed immediately after you click on it, I might get $10 credit and you would as well. Instacart refunded me the cost of this honey, as it wasn’t what I’d ordered.