Monday, November 21, 2016

Test driving Blue Apron {review} + Cabbage Pizza with Romaine & Apple Salad {recipe}


Imagine not having to spend hours of your weekend at the grocery store, list of meals for the week in hand and having to buy more than you know you need for any given recipe (how often will you actually use oyster sauce or an entire can of chipotle in adobo sauce?). I've been cooking, styling and photographing a lot for the newspaper over the last few months and with the emotional roller coaster that has occupied my life outside of work, not much energy has been left for big weekend shopping trips let alone for creating blog-worthy recipes or even healthy weekday meals after long hours at work. Just when I was feeling like I couldn't eat another scrambled egg for dinner, along came the folks at Blue Apron – the ready-to-cook-at-home meal delivery service started in 2012 that sends you a box of pre-portioned, high quality ingredients along with step-by-step instructions to prepare your meal – inquiring in my interest to try their service and provide feedback to share with you.

Of course I said yes. I already knew how convenient a meal delivery service can be having reviewed another cook-it-at-home meal delivery service last summer. But I had been curious about Blue Apron since I have several friends who are using the service. It's also a few dollars less expensive per serving than the service I reviewed last summer.

So, let's have a look, shall we?

Navigating the website
Blue Apron's website is easy to navigate with every section clearly labeled:


Note that along with the meal delivery service, they also have a wine delivery service (six 500ml bottles that serve 2 at $10 a bottle) and a market place that sells knives and prep tools, cookware, bakeware, pantry items, and wine accessories:



The menu and ordering
Plans

2-Person Plan (Seasonally-inspired meals for two)
Recipes per week: 3 (2 servings each)
Weekly total: $59.94
Family Plan (Family-style meals for four)
Recipes per week: 2 or 4 (4 servings each)
Weekly total: $69.92 or $139.84 
When you sign-up, you're automatically enrolled in Blue Apron's weekly delivery system. However, you have the opportunity to preview each week's menu and can opt to skip as many deliveries in a row as you want. This is especially convenient if you know you have a busy week coming up that won't allow for three to six nights of eating at home.


Being single, I opted for the 2-person plan. Looking at my delivery week's menu options I have to admit, I felt a bit limited. I had only 6 options, or so I thought. Once I started selecting, options grayed out, leaving me with only 4 meals to choose from. For comparison, the other service at the time of review had seven and currently offers 12 recipes including a variety of paleo, vegetarian, gluten-free, soy free and dairy free options.

The Blue Apron meals the week I ordered weren't labeled for dietary restrictions. In fact, Blue Apron doesn't currently offer recipes for specific dietary needs (i.e., paleo, gluten-free, soy free, dairy free) and only the 2 person plan offers a few vegetarian options. (I just checked for this review's purposes and see that vegetarian meals are now labeled with a small green leaf on the photo.)

My final choices were the Spiced Beef Skewers, Spicy Hoisin Chicken & Broccoli, and Smoked Mozzarella & Cabbage Pizza. I would have preferred the rigatoni as my third meal over the pizza but it wasn't an option for me.

Packaging
Delivery day is Friday, a day that I typically don't get home from work until 8:30 p.m. I don't know what time my box was delivered but the ice packs kept the meat sufficiently cold. The produce at the top of the box farthest from the cold packs were still slightly cool and still looked fresh with no signs of wilting.

Ingredients were clearly labeled for which recipe they went with, including three small paper bags called "Knick Knacks" which contained the seasonings for each recipe in small plastic packets, miniature bottles and small condiment containers.

All the packaging is recyclable and depending on where you live, curb-side recyclable. If you prefer, you also have the option of printing out a return label and returning the packaging directly to Blue Apron.

Also in the box were 8.5-inch by 11-inch sheets of instructions with photos of the finished dish and ingredients needed on one side and step-by-step instructions on the other.



The recipe cards
The first recipe I tried was the Smoked Mozzarella & Cabbage Pizza with Romaine and Apple salad.


I admit, I was intrigued by the idea of a cabbage pizza plus, being familiar with, and a fan of, smoked gouda, I was excited to try smoked mozzarella.

The instructions were clear and easy enough for any level of cook to follow with step-by-step photos of the height of the action within every step, almost like having a professional chef in the kitchen with you, looking over your shoulder. They have you prepare all your ingredients before getting started, a professional culinary technique called "mise en place" which can make you feel like you're taking a very long time before actually getting started with the "cooking" portion. But this can be very helpful for the novice cook who needs the extra time to concentrate on their knife skills without the fear of something boiling over or scorching while waiting for you to catch up.

How'd they taste?
The pizza & salad: The weakest part of this meal for me was definitely the salad. It was in dire need of crunch (the description says it's crunchy romaine and juicy apple but there wasn't much "crunch" to the lettuce) and another layer of flavor. I would add toasted walnuts or pecans for crunch and to the simple olive oil and apple cider dressing, some chopped shallots and/or fresh garlic along with a small dollop of dijon. The pizza was good, especially fell in love with that smoked cheese. But again, I felt like pizza needed something. Perhaps some caramelized onions mixed in with the cabbage or maybe even some mushrooms for added protein? Or, if you aren't necessarily vegetarian, some crunchy bits of pancetta would be divine. Either way, I would definitely make this again on my own and I've even included the recipe at the end of this post, courtesy of Blue Apron.

The beef skewers with roasted squash and garlic rice: I'm in love with Middle Eastern food and have had kofta before – a well-seasoned meatball, often made into a kebab, sometimes a mix of beef and lamb – and was excited to try making it at home. The supplied Ras el Hanout spice blend that went into the ground beef packed a punch of flavor. Ras el Hanout spice blends can differ according to household but typically it contains up to 10 spices (cardamom, clove, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, paprika, mace, nutmeg, peppercorn and turmeric). I loved the garlic rice and have used this technique for farro and wheat berry since making this recipe. Also, cutting the butternut squash into rings to roast was genius, the cooking time was reduced and presentation stellar. I also liked the prep on this which included both lemon juice and lemon zest.

The chicken & broccoli with garlic rice: This is a super simple dish that is fast to prep and cook. I would have preferred brown rice over the traditional jasmine rice only because I like to avoid white rice and I would also add garlic to the chicken and up the scallion from 1 to 2 as well as add more broccoli.

The verdict
I found Blue Apron's ingredients to be high quality. The produce was fresh and in good shape. Blue Apron works directly with farmers, some produce being organic and all the farmers incorporate sustainable growing practices. The grind of the beef was a little finer than I like so I felt like the beef skewers were denser than had I bought the meat locally but it was fresh and had great flavor. Blue Apron sources their meat from ranchers that employ humane farming of their animals and source only sustainable seafood.

The recipes were simple, quick and expose the home cook to spices, produce and preparations they might not otherwise have tried. For busy worker-bees who might stop at a fast food joint on the way home, this is definitely a better, healthier alternative. I'd like to see more options, though, and look forward to when Blue Apron expands their dietary offerings (a paleo option would be especially welcomed) as well as better at-a-glance labeling of those dietary offerings (i.e, paleo, gluten free, soy free, dairy free).

I think one of the best things about Blue Apron is not having to think about what you're going to make as you're driving home from work. Everything you need is conveniently portioned out, waiting in your fridge for you to cook. And if you're single like me, then even better as you cook one night, then eat leftovers the next night. Also, the leftovers can be repurposed, if you like. For example, the night after I had the beef skewers, I chopped up my cooked beef and squash and made a hash, adding onions and bell peppers from my fridge and topped it with a fried egg. It was utterly delicious and super quick since the bulk of the meal was already cooked.

If you've been thinking about trying out a cook-it-at-home meal delivery that provides convenience and a chance to try a variety of produce and spices, then give Blue Apron a go.

Smoked Mozzarella & Cabbage Pizza 
with Romaine & Apple Salad
Serves 2

Ingredients
1 pound plain pizza dough
7 ounces smoked mozzarella cheese
4 cloves garlic
1 Gala apple
1 Romaine heart
4 teaspoons olive oil, divided, plus more to grease the pan
3/4 pound green cabbage
1 tablespoon capers
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
salt & pepper to taste

Prepare the ingredients: Remove the dough from the refrigerator to bring to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Wash and dry the fresh produce. Cut out  and discard the cabbage core, thinly slice the leaves. Peel and mince the garlic. Small dice the cheese. Cut off and discard the root end of the romain, half the leaves crosswise. Core and thinly slice the apple.

Cook the cabbage: In a large pot, heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil on medium-high until hot. Add the cabbage and garlic; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally 7 to 8 minutes, or until softened. Add the capers and as much of the red pepper flakes as you'd like, depending on how spicy you'd like the dish to be. Cook, stirring occasionally, 1 to 2 minutes, or until fragrant. Remove from heat; season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Prepare the dough: while the cabbage cooks, lightly oil a large sheet pan. On a clean, dry work surface, using your hands and a rolling pin, gently stretch and roll the dough to 1/4-inch thickness (if the dough is resistant, let rest for 5 minutes). Carefully transfer to the prepared sheet pan, rub dough into the pan to coat the bottom in oil.

Assemble & bake the pizza: Evenly top the prepared dough with the cooked cabbage and cheese, leaving a 1-inch border around the edges. Season with salt and pepper. Bake, rotating the sheet pan halfway through, 16 to 18 minutes or until the cheese has melted and the crust is golden brown. Remove from the oven and let stand for at least 2 minutes.

Make the vinaigrette: While the pizza bakes, place the vinegar in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in 2 teaspoons of olive oil until well combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Make the salad & place your dish: Just before serving, in a large bowl, combine the romaine an apple; season with salt and pepper. Add enough of the vinaigrette to coat the salad (you may have extra vinaigrette). Toss to combine and season with salad and pepper to taste. Garnish the baked pizza with a drizzle of olive oil. Divide divid 2.3 of the baked pizza and salad between 2 dishes (you will have extra). Enjoy!

Recipe courtesy of Blue Apron. Reprinted with permission.

Disclaimer: Blue Apron supplied me with a one week trial of their 2-person menu plan for consideration for an editorial review. No further compensation was received. Receipt of product did not guarantee a review nor influence the outcome of the review. All opinions are, as always, my own. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Rosemary Olive Oil Popcorn with Garlic, Parmesan and Smoked Paprika {Recipe+Travel}

Inspired by my recent trip to Capay Valley, this rosemary olive oil popcorn is a spicy variation of my classic stovetop version.


When it comes to salty snacks, popcorn is at the top of my list. Growing up, the smell of popcorn being made in the large lidded pot normally reserved for making a big ol' pot of frijoles de la olla would bring all of us girls streaming into the kitchen in anticipation of the salty, buttery, crunchy snack. To this day, I'm not particularly big on microwave popcorn, what with it's super high sodium and chemical additives. Gross. Instead, it's stovetop popping every time. And these days, it's made in my trusty, old hand-hammered wok. I learned that trick from an ex-boyfriend who made it that way the very first night he had me over to his place for dinner and a viewing of his favorite DVD ("When Harry Met Sally"). The great heat conductivity of the wok made for some light, crunchy popcorn and after that first fistful, I was sold. 

As a rule, I make my popcorn in a good quality extra virgin olive oil sometimes flavored with garlic cloves and finished with lots of cracked black pepper and finely grated Parmesan. But last month, while in Sacramento for the International Food Blogger's Conference, I was able to participate in two field trips a few days before the conference started. The one I'm sharing today was to the Capay Valley where we were treated to a lovely farm-to-table lunch and got a tour of Capay Valley Ranches' olive and almond tree farm. While there, we received samples of some olive oil, honey and balsamic vinegar. We also got to pick a full-size bottle to add to our gift bag. I picked the Rosemary Infused Olive Oil which inspired today's recipe. We'll talk more about the popcorn in a bit. First, let's chat about what I learned about olive trees and olive oil-making with some pictures and thoughts from our afternoon.

Rolling hills and farmland as far as the eye can see

The Capay Valley is about an hour northwest of Sacramento in Yolo County. (I'll mention here that it's also 10 degrees hotter than Sacramento and was 110 degrees on this day that we visited. Hello, and thank you, air conditioned bus!) It's a lovely drive through rolling hills, vineyards and farmland sporting a casino, golf course, tasting rooms, and plenty of opportunities to partake in farm-to-table dinners. 

Our first stop was Taber Ranch Vineyard & Event Center.
The event center grounds are charming with a converted barn playing host to weddings and big events (weddings are booked nearly a year out so if you're interested, plan early!).
We were treated to fresh lemonade, iced tea, local almonds and fruit to whet our appetites.
That was followed by this silky ice cream made with CVR's olive oil.  It was so bright, slightly citrusy and refreshing. A real hit and I'm anxiously awaiting the recipe. I might have to give up and experiment on my own. 
Once lunch was ready, we moved to the loft part of the barn and helped ourselves to food. Lunch was locally grown produce and chicken prepared with CVR's oils, vinegars and honey. 
The highlight of the meal for me was the grilled chicken with CVR's Mango Sriracha Infused White Balsamic Vinegar BBQ Sauce. I was afraid it would be too spicy for me but the mango tempered the heat just enough. 
After we ate, we hopped back onto the cool bus and headed to the CVR farm where they grow three varieties of olives (Arbequina, Arbosana and Koroneiki) as well as three varieties of almonds (Aldrich, Nonpareil and Sonora).


Joe Armstrong, pictured below, is the lead farmer at CVR and was our tour guide. Some of the tidbits he shared was that they've had to rely on cutting edge techniques to keep the trees healthy and thriving during our California drought. They've mapped the soil throughout the ranch and developed a system to accurately measure the dryness of the soil so that they can give the minimal amount of water to the trees to keep them just at fruit bearing stage. If I heard correctly, these almond trees can get away with a soak just once every three weeks. Considering our drought, I found that very impressive.

Lead farmer at CVR, Joe Armstrong passionately shared his knowledge of almond and olive growing with us, encouraging us to pick nuts right off the three trees, removing the outer hull, then peeling away the shell to reveal the nut and trying them so we could taste the difference. 
The trees get a good shake, ripe nuts fall to the ground and are left to sun dry before being collected for processing.
Rows and rows of olive trees.

Some fun facts about CVR's olive growing practices:


  • Olive trees do best in the poorest soil. CVR will add lime to the soil, helping the olive trees to thrive.
  • CVR reclaims as much rain water as possible, filtering it to remove impurities before using it to water. They've found that the olive trees do best with frequent little shots of water totaling about a gallon of water per hour per tree.
  • The olives are harvested by a grape harvester which concentrates on the "fruiting" zone of the trees which is 8 feet and below. Harvesting is done mostly at night when the fruit is cool. Harvesting during the day in the heat would cause the fruit to begin fermenting almost immediately.
  • Last year, 128 acres of CVR olive trees produced 36,000 gallons of olive oil.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the only kind to use

Séka Hills Olive Mill processes the olives from several growers in the valley, CVR being one of them. Because the olives need to be processed immediately after harvesting, it's vital that mills are located as close to the farms as possible. During harvest, Séka runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to ensure the freshest product.


Unlike the old days when olives were actually pressed in vertical presses, after grinding the olives, pits and all, modern day mills put the paste into a centrifuge to extract the oil. At Séka, the fruit is kept well below 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the extraction to qualify as a cold press extra virgin olive oil which is the only kind of olive oil produced at the mill. The spent paste is sold to local farms for hog and cattle feed supplement. As comparison, some growers and mills will sell that spent paste to other producers who then treat the paste with chemicals and heat to extract more oil. This oil is labeled as olive oil or light olive oil. These, because they've been heat and chemically altered, offer none of the antioxidant benefits of extra virgin olive oil. 

Something I also learned during the mill tour is that it's recommended that you buy your oil from sources closest to you or directly from growers with expedited shipping as the oil is only best up to 18 months from the fruit's harvest date in order to maintain any of the health benefits. Imported olive oil, though popular, has spent much of it's usable shelf life in transport or sitting on shelves. Personally, I'm addicted to California olive oil and have been for quite some time.  

Now that we've learned a little bit about olive oil, let's make some popcorn!


ROSEMARY OLIVE OIL POPCORN 
WITH GARLIC, PARMESAN AND SMOKED PAPRIKA
An already infused olive oil works great but you can also make your own by tossing a sprig or two of fresh rosemary into the oil with the garlic, then adding some fresh finely chopped rosemary to the popped corn to further carry that woodsy rosemary flavor. Also, you could use regular paprika but do look for the smoked kind. I use a Spanish smoked paprika which is my favorite. You can find it online or at your local Sur la Table. 

Serves 4

INGREDIENTS
¼ cup plus 3 teaspoons Capay Valley Rosemary Extra Virgin Olive Oil, divided
4 cloves of garlic, peeled
Generous ⅓ cup organic popcorn kernels
1 ½ teaspoons smoked paprika, divided
¼ cup finely grated parmesan, divided
freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

DIRECTIONS
Place a wok or heavy potted pot with lid on high heat. Add ¼ cup olive oil and carefully add the peeled garlic. Cook, stirring, 1 minute. Pour in the popcorn, cover and shake vigorously every thirty seconds to ensure all the kernels pop. Remove from heat when popping slows to only a few pops every few 5 to 10 seconds. Total time should be about 5 minutes. 

Place ⅓ of the popcorn in a large bowl. Drizzle with 1 teaspoon of olive oil, ½ teaspoon of the paprika, and ⅓ of the cheese. Crack some black pepper over the popcorn to your liking (I'm fairly generous). Toss well. Repeat with two more layers. Store leftover popped corn in a resealable bag. Will stay fresh for about two days.




CONNECT:

Taber Ranch Vineyard and Event Center

Road 81
Capay, CA 95607
Phone: 916.716.5333
Email: info@taberranch.com

Capay Valley Ranches

Highway 16 @ Road 81 & 82
Capay, CA 95607
Phone: 916.451.4477

Séka Hills Olive Mill and Tasting Room

19326 County Road 78
Brooks, CA 95606
Phone: 530.796.2810

Notice: As a Citizen Blogger for the International Food Blogger Conference, I received a reduction in my registration fees in exchange for agreeing to write a minimum number of posts related to the conference before, during or immediately following the event, topic to be of my own choosing. This is the second of those posts. As always, all photographs, recipes and opinions are wholly my own.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Roasted Cherry Vanilla Bean Frozen Yogurt {recipe video + product review}

Try this healthier frozen treat that is lower in fat with less cholesterol and sugar than a traditional custard-based ice cream.



Most cooks love kitchen tools that make prep easier. I'm no exception. I recently received a cherry pitter from Crisp, a line of tools created to promote healthy living. When our SoCal weather went from warm to hot, I knew that I wanted to put this new tool to the test with something cold, creamy and sweet. Originally, I thought of ice cream but since I'm trying to be good and get back on track with my diet after two indulgent vacations two months apart, I instead opted for a healthier frozen yogurt. 

I'm doing things a little differently today: I created this fun recipe video for you so you can see how easy this Crisp Cherry Pitter is to use.



Ready to try this recipe? Scroll to the end of this post for written instructions.

Until next time! xo, ani


Roasted Cherry Vanilla Bean Frozen Yogurt

This recipe makes a little less than a quart, perfect for four people. Use the leftover roasted cherries, in regular yogurt, oatmeal or even pancakes or muffins. A little bourbon is added to the cherries when processing which helps to keep them from getting rock hard in the freezer since alcohol doesn't freeze. That's also the reason why I called for 2 tablespoons of vanilla extract in addition to the vanilla beans as most extracts are alcohol based (I used my homemade vanilla extract). Use full fat Greek yogurt for a creamier texture or 2% if you must. Nonfat can be used but the texture will greatly suffer. Be sure to freeze your ice cream maker bowl for at least 24 hours for the best results. Optionally, also return the blended yogurt mixer to the refrigerator for 2 hours if there is time before churning.

Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

for the cherries:
cooking spray
2 cups cherries, pitted
2 tablespoons erythritol, or two individual packets of no calorie sweetener
2 teaspoons lemon juice, divided
1 tablespoon bourbon

for the yogurt base:
3 vanilla bean pods, split in half length-wise
17.5 ounce container of Fage Greek Yogurt
2/3 cups half and half 
2 tablespoons organic liquid stevia (I like SweetLeaf or Trader Joe's brands)
2 tablespoons vanilla extract

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly spray a baking sheet with cooking spray. Spread the pitted cherries onto the baking sheet and sprinkle with the erythritol and 1 teaspoon of the lemon juice tossing to coat. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes or to taste, being careful not to burn fruit. Remove from pan immediately. Fill a large bowl with ice water. Place the cherries into a zipper bag, seal and place bag into ice water bath to cool completely. When cool, place cherries in a food processor, adding the reserved lemon juice and the bourbon, pulsing to desired texture. Set aside.

Cut the vanilla bean pods in half length-wise. Working with half at a time, carefully pry the pod open then use the back of a knife to remove the beans and place them in a small prep bowl. Repeat for all pods. Scoop the yogurt into a blender. Pour in the half and half and stevia. Add the vanilla beans and vanilla extract. Blend on high for 2 to 3 minutes or until the mixture is smooth and the vanilla beans are evenly distributed. 

Add the yogurt mixture to your ice cream maker and follow the manufacturer's instructions for the churning process, typically churning for 12 to 20 minutes depending on the brand or until yogurt is firm. Transfer the yogurt to a freezer safe 1 quart container. Add desired amount of dollops of cherries to the yogurt, carefully folding them in. Yogurt can be served immediately or for a firmer texture, cover tightly and place in freezer for 2 hours. If yogurt is too hard, allow to rest on counter for 10 minutes before serving.

I received a cherry pitter from Crisp for review and post consideration. No other compensation was received nor was a favorable review guaranteed. All opinions, recipe, and photography are my own. Thank you for supporting the sponsors who help me keep this site going. 

Want a cherry pitter of your own? Click here.