Until recently, I thought of myself as a microwave maven. A queen of convenience food. The leader of lazy cooking.
In reality, I’d simply never learned to cook. This is no understatement. If it required a pot, pan, skillet, or saute pan, I was not your girl.
But moving to an apartment with no room for a microwave helped convince me to finally try my hand at baking, stir-frying, and sauteing.
I wasn’t without help.
Thanks to a subscription meal delivery service in London called Gousto — which, like Blue Apron, delivers several meals worth of recipes plus precise, pre-measured ingredients and an easy-to-follow instruction card — I was able to learn how to make several healthy fish and vegetable dishes. After a few weeks with Gousto, I eventually canceled my subscription in favour of making the same meals on my own.
English muffin pizzas, anyone?
Contrary to what you might think about my upbringing based on my lack of cooking skills, there was one lesson my mum taught me about food as a kid growing up in a working class neighbourhood in Los Angeles, California: Eating is something you do together.
For years, I remember being called to the table by the sound of clanking silverware and the smell of roast chicken or beef wafting in our kitchen. The main entree, prepared by my mum, was usually a casserole of some sort. Digging into the layers of pasta, cheese, meat, and veggies, my mum would carefully slice a hefty portion and place it, still steaming, onto my plate. I was not to leave the table until that plate was clean. If I didn’t like whatever she’d made, I was allowed to excuse myself to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and eat that at the table with my parents instead, but the required walk of shame to the kitchen often kept me in my seat.
To put it simply, “TV dinners” were not a thing in my family. Never mind the fact that they weren’t cheap, single-portion meals prepared specifically so you could eat them while watching TV weren’t exactly conducive to my mum’s idea of a family meal. On Friday nights, though, we threw rules to the wind and celebrated, either with what my mum and I called a “pizza party” (we’d order a pizza, park ourselves on blankets and pillows on the floor of the living room, and watch a movie) or a trip to my favourite fast-food joint, Taco Bell. Both of my parents worked full-time, so a home-cooked meal every single weeknight simply wasn’t an option.
In college, in a half-hearted attempt to eat healthier and be kinder to the environment, I became vegetarian. Since I’d somehow managed to avoid my mum’s numerous attempts at showing me the way around the kitchen, I ended up making most of my food in the microwave in our dorm’s common area. In San Diego, this was pretty easy — canned refried beans were cheap and a massive bag of fresh corn tortillas cost less than a dollar at the local grocery store, so — I subsisted mainly on bean-and-cheese quesadillas. On special occasions, I’d pick up English muffins and pasta sauce and make “personal pizzas” by popping a couple of muffins in the toaster and slathering them with tomato sauce and cheese. Yum.
My lackadaisical habits worked for me for years, until I moved to my first microwave-free apartment.
My first “thing that’s not a quesadilla”
About 6 months ago I relocated to London for a year for work. It simply didn’t make sense to try and squeeze a microwave that I’d only have for 12 months into what is already a pretty small kitchen space in my apartment. So I went without it.
For a few months, my partner and I made pasta most nights and ordered takeout a couple nights a week. The takeout was expensive and all the pasta felt unhealthy, so when a coupon in the mail arrived for a free month’s worth of food from the meal subscription service Gousto (which I’d later learn is essentially one of a number of meal subscription services that closely resemble the US’ Blue Apron or Hello Fresh), we thought, “Why not?”
As you’ve probably already heard by now, the subscription includes a box packed with all the ingredients for whatever meals you select, along with the exact amounts of ingredients you need to make each one along with a step-by-step recipe card.
Here’s a typical Blue Apron box of ingredients, which looks pretty similar to one of my Gousto boxes.
My partner is vegetarian (I gave up after my year-long college stint) but we both eat fish, so most of the recipes I selected were vegetable- or fish-based.
One of our first — and favourite — dishes was an eggplant halloumi stack which featured stacked slices of pan-fried halloumi cheese and oven-roasted eggplant drizzled with a parsley and honey sauce atop a mound of mashed potatoes. I was pretty nervous at first. The meal description sounded incredibly ambitious — this was my first time making mashed potatoes, let alone roasting a vegetable and making a sauce, but Gousto’s easy-to-follow instructions helped put me at ease. All in all, the whole cooking process only took us about 30 minutes, enabling us to clean up a bit and have dinner on the table in under an hour.
Here’s how it turned out:
Once we’d put it on our plates and sat down, I was blown away by how pretty the meal looked. And it wasn’t a quesadilla! Still, we hadn’t taken a bite yet, so I remained apprehensive.
Since we’d gotten a free month, the first few meals were free. Generally, a Gousto box costs about £30-40 British pounds (the equivalent of about $US40-50 US dollars) for about three meals for two people, which averages out to about £6 or $US7.50 per person per meal. Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and other meal subscription competitors are generally about the same price. It’s not cheap.
But it is convenient.
In addition to arriving pre-measured and refrigerated at your doorstep each week, the meals are healthy. They’re rich in protein to support muscle growth, fibre to keep you full and aid digestion, and contained a good mix of healthy fats from fish, nuts, or olive oil. Some recipes contained mayonnaise or butter, but typically only in the sauces, which could be served on the side. And in terms of calories, most options were on the lower side for your average dinner, with somewhere between 300 to 600 calories per meal. The eggplant and halloumi stacks pictured above averaged out to about 400 calories per person, about the same as the meals pictured below. Still, since I was opting for veggie-friendly dishes, my results could be skewed slightly from the average meat-eating subscriber.
Hesitantly, I sliced into my stack and took my first bite. It was delicious. Not too salty, not too heavy — just right. For the next week, my partner and I made Gousto meals a few times a week. The following week, we gave in and subscribed, paying full price for our next two boxes and making meals like this baked basa filet with grilled asparagus, which took about 40 minutes:
And this glazed eggplant and feta with minty tabbouleh, which took about 25 minutes:
After a couple of months, the subscription became too pricey, and we cancelled.
But one night, as I was thinking about what to make for dinner, a used Gousto recipe card caught my eye. In the corner of the kitchen under some old mail, I’d left behind the card for smoky fish cakes over a bed of leafy greens. The ingredients were listed on the card, along with the instructions, so I took it with me to the grocery store and bought them. I spent about £8 ($US9.50) on the ingredients plus a few extras and made the same fish cakes I’d made with Gousto a few weeks ago. Not surprisingly, they tasted exactly the same and looked just as beautiful:
Now, my partner and I make our own food about twice a week. Sometimes, I do it by memory plus a little help from an old Gousto recipe. Other times, when I’m feeling slightly more adventurous, I make my own recipe. The meals are healthy but filling, affordable, and nice to look at too. I’ve told my mum about my recent adventure into cooking, and she seems just as happy as I am that I’ve finally branched away from quesadillas and personal pizzas.
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