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Friday 10 April 2015

Experiments with HelloFresh #3: Fennel & Olive Fettuccine with Fresh Parsley

No, I haven't forgotten how to count, this should really have been the final post, but I'm temporarily skipping the second for reasons I'll get into when I finally post it. I'll also do the summing-up with that post rather than this one, as it'll make more sense that way.

As much as anything on this blog makes sense, that is.

After doing things in my usual haphazard fashion on the first recipe, my girlfriend mentioned that, when she's cooking, she'll often do snippets of preparatory chopping throughout the day, by way of a five minute break from her studies. While I wasn't quite that organised, I did make a start on this earlier in the evening than with any of my previous efforts, and did most of the chopping in advance of any of the actual cooking. I also followed another bit of her advice: she'd seen and heard my frustration with all the 'finely chop ingredient x' malarky in the first post and, when it came to the garlic, she suggested I simply use our garlic press. The end result is basically the same, if not better, and saves on an awful lot of effort. It was also nice to have a genuine reason to use my mortar and pestle for a change, grinding the fennel seeds - I knew I'd bought it for a reason...

I was particularly tickled, too, when the instructions helpfully suggested a mandolin for thinly slicing the fennel. My girlfriend picked one up a while back and, while it's not quite fine enough to generate the 'almost translucently thin' slices the instructions specified, it certainly made short work of slicing the awkwardly-shaped fennel bulb.

Once the chopping was out of the way, I read through the instructions several times over. Unlike the first two recipes, there weren't any massive glitches in the ingredient quantities (although specifying '2 cups' of sliced fennel bulb seemed redundant considering only one bulb was provided, and I kinda had to use the whole thing one way or another), so I really just wanted to be sure of what I needed to do next at every step, and to get a vague idea of the timings before starting things off. The second step in the recipe is cooking the red pepper strips, for which it recommends "15 mins or until lightly charred on the outside". The next step is cooking the rest of the veg in a pan, eventually turning it into a sauce for the pasta. The timings seemed to match up pretty well, so I started each process almost simultaneously, just to see if I could keep things on track.

The sauce comes together in several short stages that I found reasonably easy to follow since I had everything ready-prepared around me. The only hitch I'd had was that this recipe calls for black olives, and I definitely didn't get any black olives in the box. Thankfully, my girlfriend really likes olives, so we tend to have some in stock. The only real difficulty then was that, again, it specified the olive content as '2 tablespoons', which I still say is an utterly ridiculous measure for bisected fruit. Still, the definition gleaned from the first recipe helped me choose the appropriate number of olives for this dish. When the tinned tomatoes are added to the pan, the recipe suggests adding sugar but I've never found that necessary - tomatoes are sweet enough and, coupled with the rest of the veg, there's enough sugar in there naturally for my tastebuds. And that's saying something.

Once everything is in the pan, the recipe instructs that the heat should be turned down low so the sauce can boil down and thicken up, and it's at this point that the pasta needs to be cooked. Personally, I found it amusing that the card includes a definition of 'al dente' under the heading 'Tip', but your mileage may vary.

Just to prove that I'm not consistently terrible at cooking, the pasta was done only moments before the oven's alarm went off to tell me that the red pepper strips were ready, so both elements were added to the sauce in the pan in good time. The final stage was chucking in the parsley and the cheese (which strikes me as odd, and one of the Gousto recipes did the same, where my girlfriend and I would normally tend to add the cheese on top, once the meal had been served... not least because it means you don't end up having to scrape congealed cheese off your pan when you do the washing up). With a final garnish of - oh, for fuck's sake - 'finely chopped' fennel fronds, dinner was served...

Based on the two recipes I bothered photographing myself, I have to conclude that there's something wrong with HelloFresh's photography or their Photoshop work, as both this and the 'Easter' Ragu were depicted as rather brown in the stock photos, while they tended more toward red when I'd finished cooking... and I'm pretty sure I didn't get anything that significantly wrong on either of these.

As we were eating, my girlfriend commented that the fennel was identifiable in the sauce, but not overpowering, as fennel can sometimes be - being almost licorice in flavour. I certainly enjoyed the dish, but have to say I found it rather bland overall... it's possible I gave it too few "good grinds of black pepper", or that the chilli was just cooked for too long - it didn't have the spicy kick I was expecting, given that the first instruction says to "finely chop as much of the chilli as you dare". Perhaps I'll have to try this one again, and deliberately try to spice it up as much as possible...

This was definitely the easiest of the three HelloFresh recipes for me to follow, though how much of that was down to me doing more preparatory work in advance, and how much was because the recipe is actually easier, I cannot say. What I will say is that the card reckons this should be done in about 25 minutes, and I took the best part of an hour over it. Admittedly, most of that was due to taking my time over the preparatory work and my neurotic re-reading of the instructions, but that's a hell of a discrepancy. Not to say I particularly rate myself as any kind of kitchen ninja, but the folks at HelloFresh do seem to presume a level of competence far higher than mine.
Probably the neatest presentation I've ever managed when cooking
for myself and my girlfriend...

If you think you might fancy giving HelloFresh a try (and are within the UK mainland), please feel free to use my referral code MPMDQT for an introductory discount. Yes, that also gets me a discount on my next order, but further deliveries are currently on hold while I complete this first set of recipes and consider how this system fits in with my current... erm... 'lifestyle'.

Thursday 9 April 2015

Experiments with HelloFresh #1: Greek Easter Ragu with Almond, Aubergine & Basil Couscous

Around the time I was making a start on my trio of Gousto posts, I was planning my first foray into HelloFresh. On the surface, both offer much the same sort of service, with a different range of recipes and a very different style of presentation. From the moment of delivery (quite late in the day, on their 0900-1700 delivery 'slot'), HelloFresh appears to be more of a brand, with a personalised box containing not only ingredients and recipes but a welcome booklet introducing the HelloFresh team and their suppliers, as well as offering hints and tips for getting the most out of the service. There was also a copy of their monthly newsletter, The Fresh Times, and a whole slew of advertising flyers offering discount codes for clothing, beers and a 'smoothie starter pack' courtesy of partner companies... some of whom also seem to share the design agency used by HelloFresh, as the style of their flyers is more than a little similar.

But, while I may work in publishing and occasionally spend my days creating such flyers, I'm not here to critique that aspect of the product. Hell, I'd need a whole new blog if I wanted to get into that...

The original Grand Plan for trying out HelloFresh was that I'd put the order in so that my first delivery would arrive while I was taking time off work, and then cook every weeknight during my holiday - not only to give my girlfriend a rest, but to keep up my culinary confidence and give myself a little more to write about on this little foodie blog of mine. Naturally, this being real life, things didn't quite work out that way and, rather than ordering five nights of meals I ordered only three. On the upside, this probably makes for a more balanced comparison with Gousto. Also, since I chose the vegetarian option, all three recipies were for dishes both my girlfriend and I could enjoy equally, without having to find substitute ingredients for anything.

Since Easter was only a few days ago, the first recipe I tried was the one featuring the word 'Easter' in the name... not that I have any idea why...

I made my first mistake before even starting to cook, in that the recipe cards arrived in a cardboard wallet and, clearly having a bad day, I failed to notice on which side the wallet was open, and so I tore it open via the glued flap. You could say that sets the tone for the entire experiment but, as I write, I've only tried two of the three recipes, and I'm hoping the last will go better.

Each recipe card is digitally printed on an oddly-sized sheet of light card, with a nice, large photo of the finished dish - as it's intended to look - along with a pictorial list of required ingredients and an estimated preparation time. The back of the card features the ingredients list - including notes on potential allergens - a nutritional breakdown and, of course, the instructions. There are also photos, but only four running down the lefthand side of the card, so not every step in the process is accompanied by a photo. That's not necessarily a problem, as some steps hardly require illustrating. I know I said I wasn't going to critique the design but, if I can complain about holes being punched through timing instructions on one of the Gousto cards, I feel it is within my rights to complain about a terrible and avoidable text orphan on one of these - the last word in one of the steps sits, on its own, at the top of the second column, looking a bit silly.

This 'Easter Ragu' was supposed to take only 35 minutes but, as usual, it took me a hell of a lot longer because I'm terrible at chopping and didn't organise myself very well. I'm not sure how much longer it took, but I'd guess the total time can't have been much short of an hour.

Part of that would be the difficulty I had in locating some of the ingredients. At first, I thought at least two - the tomato purée and feta cheese, specifically - were missing, but my girlfriend found one and I later found the other myself. Some of the ingredients - particularly those coming in plastic sachets - are branded products, and therefore very easy to identify... others are plain bagged and labelled with little stickers... still others are just plain bagged. The feta was the only content of a cool bag which I'd assumed was included to keep some of the loose veg cool and fresh, while the tomato puree just looked remarkably like one of the ingredients for another recipe, as both were reddish substances in plain sachets.

The first instruction is to pre-heat the oven, but the oven only comes into play - for 20 minutes - at the end of the third step. My oven tends to heat up quickly enough that I rarely, if ever pre-heat... though that's more because I know I'm going to be slower than the recipe expects on the intermediate steps.

I also groan inwardly whenever the instruction 'chop finely' or 'finely dice' appears in a recipe because my knife-wielding skills are pretty dire. 'Fine' is something I have yet to achieve... 'haphazard' is more my style. This recipe calls for just about all the veg to be 'finely diced', from the garlic to the aubergine, while the basil was to be 'finely chopped'.

Let's just say I chopped them all... OK?

The aubergine was a particular trial as my kitchen knives - seriously in need of sharpening at this point - had great difficulty penetrating the aubergine's skin, and yet came perilously close to penetrating mine, with alarming ease, on a couple of occasions.

My problems with the aubergine didn't end there, though, as the 20 minutes of baking was probably a little too long in my oven, any the coating I gave them of olive oil was inadequate to prevent large amounts of it sticking to the foil on my baking tray.

The remainder of the recipe went smoothly enough, even though I had to substitute a tablespoon of tomato purée from my own stock, as the sachet supplied didn't become visible to me until the next day. I did wrestle with the quantities specified, as they tend to use 'cups' as a measure, but their website states that they use a 300ml coffee mug as their 'cup', which is larger than the 'standard' US cup size (not that I'm especially familiar with them) and so somewhat confusing. Bizarrely, the recipe specifies '2 cups' of chopped aubergine, but only one aubergine was supplied, and I'd say that amounted to substantially less than 2 cups, by their measures. It also specifies '1 cup' of tomato passata, but two 200g cartons were supplied and I didn't feel like trying to be precise about measuring out part of a carton, potentially letting the remainder go to waste.

Also, in my humble opinion, any recipe that measures green olives by tablespoons (when 2 sachets were provided) is just insane.

Nevertheless, the process was fairly simple, if a little messy at times, and I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised to find that the couscous had behaved exactly as it should have - soaking up the stock - in the time it had taken me to breeze through the complicated parts of the recipe.

As I was getting ready to serve it all up, I forewarned my girlfriend that it would be coming without the feta as it appeared not to have been supplied. Thankfully, she fished it out of its hiding place within about five seconds, because she was a bit more thorough in her investigation of the packaging than I had been. Swiftly and inexpertly crumbling the soft cheese over our portions, adding a few more bits of basil ripped from the remaining sprigs, our first HelloFresh vegetarian dinner may not have been pretty, but the end result of a fairly confused period of flailing in the kitchen was completely delicious.

Aside from the couscous, which I found quite bland... and I wonder if I should have used the entire stock pot, rather than the half specified. Then again, couscous tends to be intentionally bland, and one wouldn't want it to overpower the ragu. I'll definitely try this recipe again, probably doing certain things a little differently, to see if I can improve upon my first attempt.
Definitely not the same colour as the photo on the card,
and certainly not as tidily-presented, but very tasty.
I am utterly flummoxed by the name of this dish, and how it relates to 'Easter'... but also the structure and punctuation of the name seem misleading to me - the almond and aubergine are part of the ragu, not the couscous, so surely it should be "Greek Easter Ragu with Almond & Aubergine, served with Basil Couscous"?

If you think you might fancy giving HelloFresh a try (and are within the UK mainland), please feel free to use my referral code MPMDQT for an introductory discount. Yes, that also gets me a discount on my next order, but further deliveries are currently on hold while I complete this first set of recipes and consider how this system fits in with my current... erm... 'lifestyle'.