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(Blue Apron is a home delivery service that provides meal kits for people who like to cook but don’t have the time or inclination to shop for the ingredients they need. It promises fresh, perfectly proportioned, good quality ingredients and step-by-step recipe cards delivered to your doorstep. Meals take approximately 30-40 minutes to cook and cost approximately $10 per serving. There are several such services and some of the others are Home Chef, Sun Basket, Hello Fresh and Marley Spoon.)

My wife and I became aware of Blue Apron because our son, who works long hours, sometimes uses it. We ourselves had never used it until recently, when a friend gifted us a 2 meal subscription. It was a thoughtful gift because we both like to cook. When the Styrofoam Blue Apron box arrived on our doorstep, we opened it with great anticipation. Inside, on a slab of dry ice, were the neatly packed ingredients. The meats were in tightly sealed vacuum packed pouches, the sauces in plastic bags or little bottles and the vegetables separately wrapped in a plastic bag. Our shipment was for two 2-person meals: Ginger – Marinated Steaks with Stir -fried vegetables and Jasmine Rice & Balsamic glazed Chicken w/ Roasted Vegetables. The recipes were on heavy stock paper with an enticing technicolor photograph of the completed dishes and smaller photographs illustrating the different steps in their preparation.

I have to say we enjoyed cooking the dishes and dining on them. We felt the steak dish was the better of the two but both of them were very good. The steak recipe was inspired by an episode from Top Chef Season 15 and we loved the combination of the sliced steak (marinated in an Asian style marinade of ginger, soy sauce and ponzu), sautéed bok choy, sliced red radishes and jasmine rice. I don’t have the Chicken recipe card in front of me and can’t describe it in detail but we enjoyed it too.

There are several features of Blue Apron that I liked. The ingredients are exactly proportioned and they are good quality. It’s easy to unwrap them and prep them all at once before proceeding to cook. Initially, I thought the portions were a little skimpy but I was wrong; they represent healthy servings which are what a dietitian would recommend. When we finished our meal, we were satisfied but not stuffed. The experience showed us that when we eat out, or on our own at home, we tend to over-eat because we have no real idea of how much is enough; the portions are way too large. Using meal kits means that there are no left overs or wastage; you eat everything that you’ve prepared and you don’t have unused vegetables or meats in the refrigerator that have to be used up subsequently. The recipes themselves are good and there is sufficient variety that you will not get bored , ever. They offer a wide range of dishes from a variety of cuisines. Some services also cater to special requirements such as gluten free or low carb. Since our two meals were a gift, I have no idea of the cost but am inclined to accept that they cost the advertised price of $ 10 – $11 per serving. Not sure whether that price takes into account the discount coupons that are widely available, but it probably does. At that price, they work out cheaper than eating out or even take-out. For busy young professionals short on time, they are a good alternative.

Even so, I do not see myself being a regular patron of Blue apron or its competitors.

There are a number of reasons, among them cost ( I would think we can eat for about half that price) and variety ( we eat mostly Asian food and like to experiment with exotic dishes and cuisines). The main reason is that cooking with Blue Apron is like ” painting by the numbers”. It is not a personal experience in which I get the pleasure of feeling I have done something on my own ; it is mechanical. Furthermore,I like to go food shopping, checking out unfamiliar foods and dreaming up new dishes ( which sometimes turn out horribly!). That, of course, is no longer available if I utilize Blue apron or some other meal kit.

I have a couple of $30 -off coupons and, at some point in the future, I will use them and try some Blue Apron dishes but, as for being a regular user of meal kits … it is not going to happen. I will leave them to those who are pressed for time. Me, I want to enjoy my cooking.

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Pie Five Pizza Co. is a franchise operation headquartered in Texas which recently opened a new outlet in Riya Plaza at the junction of Finnegan’s Lane and Route 27 in Franklin Park. It is different from most other pizzerias in that it offers patrons the opportunity to build their own pies. Pie Five is the first in our area to do so and it’s definitely worth a visit. Their pizzas taste fresh, light and homemade, unlike the heavy, greasy pies at many pizza chain outlets.

If you want to stick to the standard options, Pie Five has seven: Five Star, BBQ Chicken, Chicken Carbonara, Athenian, High Five, Buffalo Chicken and Farmers Market. The Five Star features Tuscan Marinara sauce, cheddar, pepperoni, beef, Italian sausage, green peppers, green olives, black olives and red onions. The Farmers Market is similarly loaded with Tuscan marinara, mushrooms, red onions, spinach, tomatoes  and red and green peppers.

If, on the other hand, you want to build your own pizza, you can specify the type of crust, the sauce, the cheese, the meats, the veggies and the finishes. For the crust you can choose between Crispy thin, Traditional Italian, Classic Pan, and (for $2 extra), Gluten Free. For the cheese you have a choice of Whole Milk Mozzarella, Cheddar, Ricotta, Shredded Parmesan and Vegan Cheese ($2 extra). All in all, there are literally thousands of different combinations you can create. An 11” pizza is $7.99 ($5.99 for a plain pie) and a 14”is $ 15.99   ($12.99, plain).

One of the things I love about Pie Five is that you can have unlimited toppings at no additional charge, a nice change from pizzerias that charge $2 for each topping. Pie Five has separate stations and ovens for vegetarian and non-vegetarian pizzas, friendly welcoming staff and a clean environment. Patrons place their orders, take their seats to wait for their orders which are completed in minutes.

In addition to Pizzas, Pie Five also offers Salads (Classic Italian, Chicken Caesar, Greek and Spinach), Bread Stix, and desserts (Chocolate Chip Cookies, Ultimate Brownies and Cinnamon Stix).

Six of us ate at Pie Five, ordering five 11- inch pizzas in a variety of toppings, sauces and crusts. Since each pizza was cut into six slices, it worked out perfectly… five slices for each of us. Just right. At the time of writing, Pie Five was applying for a permit to allow patrons to BYOB; the manager was hopeful that they would get it in a matter of weeks.

 We ate at Pie Five when it had only just opened. Understandably, the service staff were still feeling their way, and patrons, unfamiliar with the system, were taking their time with their options.I expect the glitches will soon be fixed.

Pie Five Pizza Co. 3010 Route 27, Franklin Park NJ 08824.   Phone ( 732)  305-7937

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What a fantastic game it was yesterday ! Last year, when the Patriots won after trailing by 25 points in the second half, I didn’t think there could be a more exciting game. I was wrong and how! Last year’s game was one-sided for more than a half ; this year, there was tension throughout. The Patriots and the Eagles traded scores before New England nosed ahead only to see the Eagles grab the lead and strip -sack Brady to put the game almost out of reach. With just over a minute remaining, it would have taken a miracle ( a TD and a two point conversion) for the Pats to pull it out but Brady’s Hail Mary fell short.

In the past, I’ve gone along with those who think a defensive struggle ending in a tight 9-7 or 10-9 finish as the ideal game. I’ve changed my mind. Yesterday’s game showed that a high scoring game can be just as enjoyable, if not more so. If the game is close throughout, and if the lead changes hands once or more, a high scoring game is more exciting to me.

Yesterday, there were Super Bowl records set for most yards gained and most points scored. What is one to make of this? Some sports scribes label this a failure of the defenses.  I can’t agree. The Eagles pass rush was fierce throughout and, if they sacked Brady only once, I credit Brady for his coolness and poise under fire. Many times he only just escaped the pass rushers to throw strikes to his receivers. Foles too was equally impressive. Thus, I wouldn’t fault the defenses on either team; it’s just that the offenses were outstanding.

So was the play calling. After the first quarter, almost every time the Patriots had the ball they looked likely to score and often did. I’m not sure whether to give all the credit to Josh McDaniels, the offensive coordinator ( or reserve some for Belichick) but as, the game wore on, it seemed like the Pats were one step ahead of the Eagles defense. One has  come to expect that from Bill Belichick led teams but, yesterday, Doug Pedersen, the Eagles head coach, was just as brilliant. His play-calling was innovative and daring, never more so than on the two fourth down plays both of which the Eagles came through, once for a TD.

One topic that will be the subject of much discussion is Bill Belichick’s decision not to start Malcolm Butler, the cornerback who became a Super Bowl star when the intercepted Seattle QB Rick Wilson on the goal line and preserved a Patriots victory. Belichick is, of course, mum on his reasons for doing so. One school of thought is that Butler was benched in favor of Eric Rowan because the latter being taller would be more effective against the Eagles athletic receivers. Considering that Rowan was repeatedly torched by the Eagle wide-outs, it boggles the mind that Belichick did not relent and re-insert Butler.. if indeed the reason for the original decision was as surmised above. Belichick is always pragmatic and you’d think he would not let his stubbornness get in the way of what was best for the team. Another ( rumor?) is that Butler was benched for disciplinary reasons. What the truth is we may never know. In any case, Butler will soon be an unrestricted free agent and has probably played his last game for the Patriots.

I had been rooting for the Eagles to win, though I had no real hope that they would do so. Even though I consider Brady as perhaps the best QB ever and Bill Belichick unquestionably the greatest coach and judge of talent in the NFL, I was tired of seeing the Patriots win. Furthermore Brady,  though he says and does all the right things, strikes me as being arrogant. Thus I was very happy when the Eagles pulled off an upset yesterday even though I’m not an Eagles fan. Nick Foles has had an up-and-down career and I was glad for him and for the Eagles as they won their first Super Bowl rings ever.

For a variety of reasons, chief among them the fact that my team (the N. Y. Giants) was dismal this season, I’d not really followed the NFL this season. Yesterday’s game was only the second I’d seen all season long, the first being the Patriots- Jacksonville thriller two weeks ago. Hearing about the Eagles roster, how they are loaded with talent and will be a force for years to come, makes me apprehensive for the Giants future. With an aging QB in Eli Manning and with gaping holes at a number of positions, the Giants are in for a long re-building phase. Since I’m not a fair weather fan, I won’t abandon the Giants but it looks like rough seas ahead. But all that is in the future. For now, congratulations to the Philadelphia Eagles for a game well played and a tremendous victory.

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I was in the checkout lane at the local supermarket and the cashier was ringing up my purchases when she hit a snag. One item had her stymied . She held it up and asked the girl at the next lane,” Do you know what this is?” The other girl knew the answer.

“THIS” was a cauliflower.

This was many years ago. It would not happen today, mostly because every item has a bar code that can be scanned. Cashiers don’t need to know what the items they are checking out are. Otherwise … who knows?

At the time this incident happened, I remember being astounded. How could she not know what a cauliflower was? Then I realized it was not surprising when you consider how few vegetables most Americans eat. Even today, the American diet is heavily meat-centric. When I’ve been invited to dinner at the homes of my friends, the meal has consisted of a salad followed by roast chicken or steak accompanied by potatoes( boiled, mashed or French Fries) and a vegetable.  “Vegetable” usually means carrots, green beans or green peas. This I believe is the standard fare in most American homes. BTW, this comment does not apply to families living in the big metropolitan centers and to first generation immigrants ( particularly Asians) who still eat the cuisine of their native countries. I know this is true when I look at the laden shopping carts of fellow shoppers in the supermarket: Meat, frozen entrees and pizzas, pasta, tomato products, very few vegetables, bags of chopped salad, cereals, eggs, desserts and soda. Though, nowadays the soda has been replaced by bottled water. When I took my friend to an Indian supermarket he was amazed at the number of vegetables on offer, many of which he had never seen and did not know the names of.

Why is this so? Why is the American diet so meat oriented? I don’t know the answer but I have observed this fascination with meat in other countries too. When we were in the Dominican Republic, some years ago, I went to a local restaurant to see what the local food was like. There on a steam table were mostly meat dishes, the only difference with high end hotels being that they were stews and casseroles made with inferior cuts of meat, what we would call ” organ meats” or ” offal”. Vegetables( except for potatoes, onions, tomatoes and carrots) were conspicuously absent and I later found out that vegetables were in short supply and relatively expensive.

Even among the poor, there is a hankering to eat more meat. I remember reading about a riot in Egypt where the rioters marched on the luxury hotels in Cairo shouting slogans, among them ” We eat bread while they eat meat!”

Many of us seem to make a connection between meat eating and upward mobility. In Shanghai, we were dining in a half empty restaurant on some the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten. Next door was a jam packed McDonalds with a line of customers snaking out the door. Our guide remarked sadly that Chinese never had a problem with obesity until the American fast food chains came to China.” Now”, she said ” kids want to eat hamburgers and fried chicken all the time. They don’t want to eat Chinese food anymore”. The results were not difficult to see. Shortly thereafter, I was looking at the Guinness Book of World Records and noticed that the world record for heaviest child was held by a Chinese boy of 14 who weighed in excess of 350 pounds( I can’t remember the exact figure). I also saw the record for the maximum weight loss was also held by another Chinese boy.

And yet, all this meat eating is not good for the body. My wife had been to a talk by a nutritionist at the public library. After talking about the desirability of a balanced diet with plenty of fiber and lots of grains and vegetables, he mentioned how they aid digestion and bowel movements. Going to the toilet at least once a day was a must, he declare; otherwise retaining this waste in the body for longer periods could lead to illnesses such as colon cancer, besides being highly uncomfortable. One lady in the audience was amazed. ” But I go only once a week !” she said. I don’t know what else was said in response but I can’t help thinking she must have been perennially constipated. What a horrible condition to be in. If I miss going even for a day, I feel terrible and I know I’m difficult to live with. To be in such a condition for a week, week in and week out, boggles the mind. No wonder I see so many TV ads for extra strong laxatives and stool softeners.

I want to make it clear that I am not a vegetarian. I do eat meat, all kinds of meat ( beef, pork, chicken, fish), though in much smaller quantities. I do not eat it at every meal though I have some protein every day. When I eat meat, it is the supporting, rather than the main, component of the meal. While I occasionally will have a steak or roast chicken, most of the time I eat meat in the form of curries, casseroles, stews or chili. And , of course, plenty of vegetables, sprouted grains and legumes. To my mind, the Japanese and the Chinese have the ideal diets; small quantities of meat or fish in almost every dish and plenty of vegetables, often raw or par-cooked. Perhaps a strict vegetarian diet is best, as some diet gurus aver, but it is not for me. I like the taste of meat and to satisfy my  body’s protein needs entirely from vegetarian sources would be difficult and too much of an effort.

 

 

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I love Thai food. I love the soups, satays, crunchy spring rolls, green papaya salad,  curries ( red, green, yellow and Masaman), stir fries flavored with basil, noodle dishes      ( Pad thai, flat noodles , glass noodles), the desserts. I have been eating at Thai restaurants for the better part of fifty years and on occasion, even cook it at home. I think I know a little bit about it. I was surprised therefore to read an article in the New York Times magazine complaining that Thai restaurant food in America has become too sweet. This couldn’t be true, I thought. I remember Thai food as being predominantly spicy and sour, not sweet.

In the past two months, I’ve been to three Thai restaurants, two in New Jersey and one in Henderson, Nevada and guess what… the food, especially the noodle dishes, was too sweet. At one of those places, the pad thai was so sweet it could have passed for dessert. When did this happen? Was my memory playing tricks or had Thai food always been sweet?

A little internet research showed me that complaints about Thai food are not new. Ten years ago, one commenter sagely declared ” When you ease up on the heat, the balance goes wrong”. Another groused ” I hate this creeping sweetness thing. ” Yet another implored ” Don’t cater to the American sweet tooth this way.” As far as that last comment is concerned, I am glad to inform you that we are not solely to be blamed. Similar criticisms were voiced by restaurant goers in countries as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

Apparently, Thai food was not always sweet. But when did it become so?

To answer this question, I looked up several Thai cookbooks and found that while many recipes did call for sugar or palm sugar, the quantities varied widely. In cookbooks published in Thailand and in blogs based in Asia, the quantities of sugar specified were appreciably smaller. I next looked up pad thai recipes in several blogs and cookbooks. I found that for the same quantity of noodles, the amount of sugar called for varied from a low of 1 teaspoon to a high of 1-1/2 Tablespoons  (more than four times as much). One recipe in the N.Y. Times  even specified 1/3 cup of honey.

It looks as if Thai food was made sweeter over the years to suit the Western palate. Many Westerners can’t handle spicy food and rather than drive them away, restaurateurs added sugar, lots of it, to their dishes while also cutting back on the heat. I confirmed this by speaking to my daughter who has spent a month in Thailand. She agreed that while Thai recipes, particularly the noodle dishes, did often include sugar the food was not overly sweet.

One final thought: In all the neighboring countries of Asia ( Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia) the food is always spicy and often sour. Does it make sense that only in Thailand it is sweet? No way.  The New York Times article was right. The food in many Thai restaurants in America is too sweet and  it is inauthentic.

 

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Tipping or service charges are so much a part of eating out in America that it is strange to be in an environment where tipping is not the norm. Five years ago, on a trip to Tokyo, we were taken aback to find that tips were not expected, where they were politely returned to us. We learned quickly and did not repeat our mistake. It was a practice that I wish existed elsewhere.

Though I always add tips when paying restaurant tabs, it is something that leaves me feeling either foolish or parsimonious. Did I tip too little or too much? Sometimes, I am not sure. Years ago, 15% was the standard tip, then it became 18%. Now , we are told it should be 20%, even 25% for exceptional service. Why? Why do these standards keep changing, always going up? Also, initially, the percentage was supposed to be calculated on the food and beverage cost; then it switched to a percentage of the entire bill, including tax. Finally, with the hefty markup on wines and drinks, the expected tip increases out of all proportion to the service being provided.

Tips were supposed to be optional, not mandatory. Now, they are expected as a right. They are even suggested and encouraged where they should not be. At the coffee shop where I pick up a bagel and coffee, there is a tip jar on the counter. What exactly is the tip for in this instance? For ringing up my order and handing it to me? I don’t buy it.

Service charges are not the answer. They merely mean a mandatory tip, whether the service is good or not and just take the guesswork out of figuring out what is appropriate. Besides, one has way of knowing how much of the service charge actually goes to the wait-staff and how much is skimmed off by the management, something I suspect happens a lot.

By not including the service in the basic cost of the meal, restaurants are doing what the airlines do. Keeping the stated price low and then socking customers with extras. Airlines do it to hide the true cost of a flight; restaurant owners do it to pass on the cost to diners and to avoid paying employees a living wage.

I’m glad therefore glad to read that some restaurants ( many of them owned by Danny Meyer) in New York City have abolished the practice of tipping. The prices listed on the menu ( plus tax) are the total cost of the meal. No hidden charges. This way, I can look at the prices on the online menu and decide whether a particular restaurant is worthwhile or whether it is too rich for my blood.

P.S The above might make me seem a curmudgeon but I don’t think I am. I am careful to tip ( and quite generously too) at ordinary restaurants. At low end restaurants, I tip more because I know the servers don’t make much. What gets my goat is the outsize charge for service at the upper end restaurants that I occasionally eat at.

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In my previous post, I had written about tasting menus and their shortcomings: expensive, marathons with too many dishes, too many flavors and not enough food. There is, however, a simple alternative that diners can use to taste many dishes at a lower cost.

No, it is not the buffet. Generally, buffets are available only in low- end ethnic restaurants and there is often the suspicion that the food is left-over from the previous day. It doesn’t compare with the a la carte dishes at the same restaurant. This is not a blanket statement about ALL buffets but it is true of most of them.

Instead, why not try ordering family style? At most restaurants, that’s what we do. We each select a dish and share it with the others. This way, each diner gets to try everything and no one is stuck with a bad choice. If we find that a particular dish is a winner then ,on a return trip to the same restaurant, we order a double serving of that dish along with singles of the ” new” entrees. By ordering family style, we are able to try all the dishes we want on the menu within two or three visits to the restaurant.

Two other advantages of ordering family style 1) No meal is the same because we are always trying out new dishes while sticking to old favorites. It’s a combination that can’t be beat. 2) It enables us to be adventurous when trying out new unfamiliar cuisines. I remember how, when I used to lunch in Chinatown, there would sometimes be out of town lunchers at a neighboring table. I could tell they were from out of town , because each person would order only for himself.  They would order the old familiar standbys : fried rice, egg fooyung, chow mein  etc. One would have only the chow mein. Another, only the fooyung. A third, only the chow mein. Meanwhile , my colleagues and I would be sharing dishes like Sauteed Lamb with Basil, Chengdu Chicken, Tea Leaves Smoked Duck, Pork with Special Pickled Radish, Seafood with Pan Fried Noodles and Sizzling Hong Kong Steak.

Family style… It’s the only way to go.

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