Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Dinner in a box

Several weeks ago, an offer for a mail-order dinner from a company called plated popped up in my Facebook feed.  It seemed like a pretty good deal: for the cost of shipping and handling (which was $20) I could get the ingredients for a meal for four people, delivered to my door.  I could cancel my membership any time.  Ordering was easy and I had my choice of several delivery dates. There was a choice of several menus; I chose the Basil Beef Bowl with Quinoa Stir-Fry.

One of the obvious appeals of plated is that a fairly inexperienced home cook could put together a dinner and look (and feel) like a competent cook; other reasons for purchasing ingredients from plated might be the time saved shopping and searching for recipes, as well as sprucing up a tired recipe repertoire.

Before this service came along, I remember having a friend who, when she wanted to impress a new date with a "home cooked meal," would purchase take out from one of the better restaurants in town, transfer all the food to her own baking pans and skillets, dispose of all the take out containers and then cleverly mess up the kitchen to make it look like she had been cooking all day.  Plated is much more sophisticated than that!

My box arrived on a warm Saturday afternoon, while I was running errands for several hours.  I knew by the time I got home, the box would have been sitting for several hours on my front step.  I was a little concerned about how long it had been sitting there without being brought inside, but I needn't have worried.  There were two large ice-packs inside a foam-filled Mylar-lined box and everything was cold and fresh, especially the two portions of flank steak sealed in heavy-gauge plastic packs.  I would assume that the company would have shipped this meat from a frozen state in order to insure maximum freshness.

There was a lot of food; in fact, it turned out that there was food for much more than four servings. That meant that we had leftovers, something that some folks may not like, but I happen to appreciate it since I often arrive home during the week too late and too tired to be imaginative in the kitchen.  Plated doesn't require much in the way of imagination, but it does require your attentiveness to detail and your willingness to work your way through the procedures.

Since each dinner is shipped in units of two servings, I had a chance to compare the two sets of ingredients for consistency.  One set had two onions, the other only one, but all the other ingredients seemed to be evenly and generously.

From a conscientious consumer's prospective, I wasn't thrilled with the amount of packaging for things like sriracha sauce (which came in plastic packets), honey (in small foil-topped plastic tubs), and soy sauce (which came in a multitude of tiny plastic squeezable fish).  There were a lot of plastic bags as well, and even though I typically will reuse or recycle heavy plastic bags, I would have liked to have seen the ingredients put into something that was biodegradable and less wasteful, since many people I know do not reuse or recycle plastic bags.

The labeling was clear on all the ingredients and the fresh ingredients were grouped together separately.  There was a large 8" x 11 1/2" card, printed on two sides, that gave step-by-step directions.  The pictures for each step appeared to be helpful and to clearly illustrate what the cook was to do.  There was also a picture of the finished dish.  The directions were clearly written and easy to follow.  A person with little kitchen experience should have no problems following the directions, nor identifying the ingredients in the box.

From the perspective of an experienced and competent cook, however, I thought that the directions and procedures could have been improved in two distinct ways.  First, when cutting the flank steak to prepare for marinating, it would have been a lot easier to cut the beef thinly if the instructions had directed cooks to partially freeze the beef first.  Even with a very sharp knife, it was hard to cut the flank steak well without freezing.  Most home cooks, especially those who do not cook ambitiously, do not have very sharp knives and flank steak is harder to cut than some other cuts of beef; dull knives also tend to cause more accidents when foods are harder to cut.

Also, the instructions called for cutting the beef before any of the other vegetables, presumably without using separate cutting boards.  Obviously, because the meat needed to be marinated before anything else was prepared, it needed to be handled first.  However, either the directions should have instructed readers to use two different cutting surfaces, or to cut the meat after the vegetables, which would not have affected the length of time it took to make the meal in a significant way.  I'm a stickler for separate cutting surfaces for meats and other foods.

The directions also asked the cook to wipe the pan out after stir-frying the quinoa and vegetables before cooking the meat.  With some of the flavor clinging to the pan from the sauce ingredients, I decided to not wipe the pan out, leaving that flavor for stir-frying the beef.  The applied heat is not so hot that it would burn the residue and I thought that this was an extra and unnecessary step.

When the dinner was completed and plated, it was attractive and appealing.  I had extra Thai basil in my garden, so I was able to garnish the plates, and the wedge of fresh lime was also attractive and added a lot of great flavor to the finished dish.

Would I purchase from plated again?  Even though my experience was positive, it's not likely I would be a subscriber to this service.  I cook well enough on my own and frequently tackle far more ambitious cooking chores than the dinner I prepared with the help of plated.  In addition, the cost of these dinners when paying full price on a non-promotional subscription service is too steep for me to feel like I'm getting a good value.

If you check the on-line feedback from plated customers (as I did), you will notice there are mixed reviews.  It seems that just as many people had bad experiences as those who had good ones.  My experience was fun, interesting and pretty tasty.  I would love to hear from those of you who decide to give plated a try.