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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Mail Order vs Market - A review of Relay Foods

As is clear from this blog, I relish the opportunity to visit our local farmers markets for as many of my cooking needs as possible. Unless we're out of town for the weekend, I usually carve out some time either Saturday in Fells Point or Sunday under 83 checking out the goods from around the region. It's both ritual and utility. I shop for what I need and take a certain pleasure in the process of strolling the stands, comparing the goods and day dreaming about meal plans for the week ahead. I'd like to say this market loyalty comes out of some deep-seeded belief in the local food movement and to reduce the carbon footprint related to my produce and protein consumption, but that would be a self-congratulatory stretch. I do support the ideals of #eatlocal, you know, reducing shipping costs and environmental impact, spreading nutritional literacy, supporting farmers, artisans, and agrarian communities, and generally believe in the small-scale agriculture movement, but it's the not the reason I pull myself out of bed and grab my totes in the morning, just being honest here.

I get up and go because love the social aspect; running into friends and neighbors, some in various states of recovery from Friday or Saturday nights, milling about my neighborhood in search of edible treasures, it's such a comforting ritual and soooo Americana. From the moment I wake up I look forward to my first (of two) cup of Cafe Latte'da seasonal coffee to get me going.  Freshly fueled I spend my next hour or so speaking with farmers, artisans and craftspeople, often getting great recipe ideas for ingredients from the people who grow and make them. As trendy, or mainstream as the idea of the farmers market may have become, it is still a way to support local producers and a way to connect with the community in a personal, physical, and sensory way.

 All that said, one could understand why I have never been one for mail order food services. Blue apron and the like are out, I take too much pride in planning and executing my own meals from soup to nuts. There are specialty services that provide CSA style shares of meat or other niche products, but I do not have the freezer space for storing the volume they provide, so I haven't had a chance to try. I did give Relay Foods a try a year or so ago, but found the disconnect from seeing my purchase, mainly the meat selections, to be off-putting and I quickly lost interest, deferring to Pahl's HogsHickory Chance Beef and the like. With daily produce and specialty meats off the table, and full meal preparation services never in the running, I am squarely outside the demographic for mail order food products. Until this week...

Faced with a rather specific recipe to prepare this week, paired with a shortage of skin-on pork belly at my usual Whole Foods, I decided to give Relay Foods another try. Relay explains that they want to "make shopping for quality, healthy, and sustainable groceries simple and easy...We're here to help you connect to and learn about the people who grow your food, and to empower local producers by providing the online resource for learning about their products and practices." I get it, take the sustainable, low carbon foot print, farm-to-consumer concept digital. They add in community enrichment, rewarding their employees and creating a place where consumers are proud to spend their money. All of which I can totally get behind, and would even consider paying a premium for, as long as they execute.

Full disclosure, my recipe is for Porchetta. Preparation is a slow and deliberate process involving herbed pork loin wrapped in crispy pork belly roasted to perfection. I'm cooking for 4 that evening so I need a significant portion, roughly 3 pounds of porn loin to 3 pounds of skin on porn, enough to completely engulf the loin, skin-side out, end to end. This is important context to this story as my specific need impacted both my decision to use Relay and the quality of my experience. 

The Experience

Ordering on relay is easy. The user interface is pleasing and simple to use with convenient categorical drop downs and search bars. They even break out categories like "organic" or 'grass fed' so one can narrow the search. Not useful to me with my explicit need/intent, but one thing I thought noteworthy, is the addition of recipes ideas that are linked to searches performed. For example a search for "Ground Lamb" produces recipes for Mediterranean Pita, Lamb Kofta, and stuffed portobellas in addition to the actual product offerings, a nice touch. I did not take the time to evaluate the quality of the recipes, but the relevance and aesthetic appeal of the photography was very good.

The first issue when using services like this is availability. Relay can be slightly deceptive, allowing you to search for anything, returning results for most everything, but only once you've clicked into the item does it tell you whether something is in stock. As someone with an immediate need, I would value the ability to easily filter by "In stock" items in my searches. I can see, however, to the casual browser, why seeing all product offerings, agnostic to current availability might be valuable and be good for meal planning, pantry stocking, and recipe ideas for the future. 

This time Relay had what I needed and in stock (or so I thought, more on this later). I found the pork belly quickly. Quite conveniently, the first selection, Timbercreek (a Charlottesville, VA farm) and pasture-raised (animal feelz), was indeed skin on and came in packages approximately 1.5lbs in weight. Perfect! I thought, i would just simply buy two. At that point I proceeded to the check out and discovered that there was a new wrinkle (or at least I think it's new). There was a $5 Minimum Order handling charge for sub-total under $25. This immediately reduced the convenience factor that drove me to relay in the first place. It totally mitigated my ability to find and order the specific item and amount of product I needed without ancillary considerations. So I made a choice.

Faced with this "minimum Order" conundrum, I decided to take this opportunity as writing fodder a critique the product and service experience as a whole. 

I had never previously used Relay for anything other then protein. I figured that would be a rather narrow review, so in order to add  more value I expanded the product categories. I needed a fennel bulb (fronds on specifically), a head of cauliflower, leeks, and dried rosemary (I just ran out). Conveniently I figured these would offer a good cross sectional way to evaluate quality, price and over all value. The vegetables have very clear quality measures: freshness, firmness, cleanliness, and in the case of the leek and fennel, the crispness of the green parts. The rosemary would be an easy way to evaluate value as the price for an explicit amount (oz weight) of a packaged product would be easy to compare across vendors. Faced with this "minimum Order" conundrum, I decided to take this opportunity as writing fodder a critique the product and service experience as a whole. 

I returned to shopping and quickly found all the items I was looking for, once again, in stock. Points earned back for availability there. I found organic leeks for just $2ea (not bad, but not farmers market cheap), a head of organic cauliflower for $350 (regularly $4, decent deal), a fennel bulb for $3.50 (size varies so much, hard to tell if this was going to be a good value), and 5oz of organic dried rosemary from Frontier Natural Products Co. (good brand) for $4.50. I would have to wait to evaluate the produce items in person to judge the quality and value, but I immediately recognized the deal I was getting on the rosemary. Whole Foods is notoriously expensive, so that brand and quality is not surprisingly price at over $6 for the same size package. What affirmed my bargain was encountered McCormick and even store brand rosemary a Safeway, all at higher prices for the same or smaller weight. Early points for value.

I proceeded to the check out having slightly begrudgingly made it past the $35 mark. I learned as I followed the prompts that Relay now offers more comprehensive home delivery, but at a cost. For me, this doesn't really add any value. The drop off location is so close to my home, that it is actually better than lugging grocery bags from from mid workday trips to Whole Foods (I walk to work FYI). I can see someone who orders with regularity or makes larger purchases benefiting from this feature. I even learned they do afternoon deliveries, so the challenge of being home to receive perishables (and stoop stealables) is somewhat mitigated. All options considered, at Monday at 2pm, I placed my order for  the 5:30pm - 7pm pick-up in my neighborhood the following evening. I thought I could sit back and relax and my porchetta was destined for success.

The next day I got the confirmation email , this once is like the second level confirmation of availability because clearly with perishables, something could go wrong during packing etc. To my chagrin, the pork belly that was supposed to be 3lbs, the perfect amount for my recipe, and $22, had been reduced to just one package at $6.53, so I took that to mean just over one pound. I was outraged, and clearly went off to a sympathetic co-worker who understands my culinary neuroses (and general insanity). I fired off an email in reply explaining the specific need for my recipe, how that was the sole reason for my return to Relay, my dismay at expanding my order to meet the minimum, and the reluctant acceptance based on my ability to review the service for this blog. I explained I appreciate the price revisions, but essentially all utility was lost and they might have even ruined my dinner party. If you know me, you'll already be assuming I wasn't gentle.

I got a replay in exactly 8 minutes. It was apologetic and Marlee immediately informed me they had located additional stock and would offer to send it to my home the next business day, free of charge. We went back and forth about sending to my home vs to my office based on the need to received and store it properly and Marlee was more than accommodating. We settled on home delivery based on the afternoon timing of shipping and I breathed a hesitant sigh of relief. 

Tuesday evening arrived and I made my way to the Patterson Park Public Charter School pick-up location, just a few blocks from my home. I waited behind just one other customer to receive my produce and diminutive pork belly. I was home, bag in hand, in less than 20 minutes door to door. More convenience points!

I pulled the items from the bag. Rosemary was as expected. The cauliflower was firm and fresh but was Calorganics brand, and packaged in plastic, which is fine, but doesn't really align with the local, “know your producer”, low carbon footprint ideal which Relay espouses and to which I try to aspire. The leek, however, was bright green at the ends, and thick, a good specimen, still just a decent value at $2. The fennel was a medium bulb, clean and firm. The best part was there was significant frond structure (critical to my recipe) and they were crisp and fragrant, high quality. The small pork belly was from the stated producer, thick, and with a clean golden skin, a nice piece albeit smaller than I had wanted. All in all the quality was very high, cost related value equivalent to the farmers market or slightly worse (aside from the rosemary which was exemplary), but I was yet to truly realize the convenience factor as 2.5lbs of pork belly were still outstanding. 

Throughout the day Wednesday, I received notifications that my package was out for delivery as well as offers to track it, I declined as I had faith in Marlee's ETA. Turns out the final arrival time was somewhere around 7, so Mark was home and able to receive. I did not get home until after 8, so there was no impact to my meal prep plans for the evening.

All in all the experience was not bad, but I am reluctant to say it was great, so I will settle for a soft, low-grade good. In typical finance professional form I expected an STP experience! I wantedhands-free, not having to complain and deal with working out the availability issue, but that's life I guess. The quality of product both produce and packaged was high (the only points off was for the packaged cauliflower) and the value was comparable to what I think are quite economical prices at farmers markets, so in that sense high value made even better by the bargain I got on the rosemary. Ultimately I do have to award points for Marlee and her quick and comprehensive customer service and issue resolution, just wish it never had to happen. All that said, I think Relay, and mail order groceries in general, are better suited for the casual browser or someone who has need of readily available staples. Relay is a great site for browsing, seeking inspiration and stocking up, due in large part to the excellent protein selections. It is not ideal for someone like me with a very specific and time sensitive need, all convenience is lost with one availability hiccup.

Relay is admittedly just one option in this ever expanding field, and this is simply a review of my experience within specific use case restrictions. There are great CSA options with farmers or coops, lots of pre-portioned services (Blue Apron and the like) for those with less time and interest in the creative process, and some intriguing specialty providers like Butcher Box or Hatchery that offer more focused products like grass fed beef or new or unique artisanal ingredients. I plan on exploring some of the specialty services, but for specific recipes and general shopping pleasure, I am going to stick with my beloved Baltimore farmers markets. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Channeling Ina - Career Aspiration & Relationship Goals Soup

My fiancé Mark is very into soup. This may seem like an unremarkable characteristic, but he is someone for whom it is so difficult to cook, that any preference or affinity is notable. Honestly, he is so particular about food that it is often hard for me to find meal ideas that will be both satisfying to me and “acceptable” to him. He refuses to eat bacon, abhors sausage, is finicky about quantity and type of cheese, and generally sparing with constructive feedback on the occasion he does like something. As someone with a formidable cook book and recipe collection and kitchen skills to boot, he is extremely reluctant with menu ideas when asked, but all too quick to shoot down many a proposition. For more on this topic, stay tuned for my other blog “Marrying Mr. (Always) Right – An Engagement Story” coming soon…  

All that said, soup seems to be his culinary kryptonite, a good one can bring him to his knees. So I am always eager for the weather to turn cooler so I can start playing with new recipes and old favorites each fall. 

This year, I feel like I am distinctly channeling Ina Garten in her new book, Cooking for Jeffery, in which she describes her passion for cooking for the people she loves through anecdotes and recipes of her husband's favorite dishes. This blog is totally the same thing...;-)

Throughout the autumn months, I scour the weekend markets looking for the best ingredients that can be stewed or pureed to soupy perfection, all in the name of eliciting praise from Mark. Don’t get me wrong, I also cook for myself, but there is sometime so satisfying about satisfying another, especially a very particular romantic partner. I can impress myself with something simple like perfectly poached eggs anytime, but hearing the happy sated sigh of a dinner guest or fiancé after that first taste of something you have labored over for hours, maybe even days, oh it’s priceless. It is safe to say that one of my greatest pleasures in life is cooking for others. Lucky for him, Mark serves as beneficiary (and challenging critic) of my endeavors on a daily basis.

Preparing dinner is a nightly ritual in our household. One that is as deliberate as it is (usually) delicious. As ridiculous as it may sound, I find myself laying in bed Sunday evenings, mulling over my take from the farmers market and planning meals for each night of the week. From the simple to the complex, dinner for two or for many, it’s what lulls me to sleep and gets me through the work week. I spend down time at the office searching out interesting recipes, maybe a twist on an old favorite, or something new I can adapt from some foreign cuisine. I muse on narratives for my meal prep and service, devising interesting and amusing ways to describe my inspiration and execution. When we have dinner guests, I plan conversation around the meal, from the sourcing of the ingredients to recording the recipe as a party favor. I am always thinking about plating, garnish, serving dish, and ultimately how I am going to Instagram my creation. 

I am literally, for better or for worse, an aspirational food and lifestyle personality.

One recent evening, I was feeling particularly “Ina” so I decided to roast a chicken. In typical Barefoot Contessa style, I put it in a cast iron dutch oven with a ton of fresh and dried herbs, I wanted an intensely roasted and perfumed bird. Once done, I pulled the meat and made a decadent herbed chicken salad, perfect for our lunches during the week (Mark informed me promptly upon returning home for work, there was too much mayo, see what I mean?).

 I saved the carcass and tossed it back into the pot after sweating some mirepoix (carrots, onions, celery) with garlic and leeks. I used sherry to deglaze the base and added tarragon, thyme, bay leaf, sage, fennel seed, anise, rosemary and lots of black peppercorn before covering the bones with water and setting to boil. I let it cook for several hours, adding a bit of salt as I tasted along the way. The fragrant herbs filled my house with the most wonderful and comforting smell, and the hours of cooking lent the liquid a hue so dark I could barely see through. I allowed it to steep and cool covered overnight then strained it in the morning. The flavor was as intense as the color, the bay leaf and fennel adding smoky depth and floral highlights that I had not anticipated, but was delighted to achieve. I divided the pot in two and poured half into a silicone large format ice cube tray, the kind you would use for making single blocks for scotch or whisky. I carefully popped them in the freezer and saved the rest of the stock for later in the evening.

When I got home from work I pre-heated the oven and set a head of cauliflower on a baking tray. I brushed the entire thing with garlic powder infused olive oil and roasted it for nearly an hour. As it neared completion I started to char some leeks in the bottom of my soup pot. I added the reserved stock from the refrigerator as they started to brown. Once the cauliflower was roasted I dropped it carefully into the stock and covered with additional water. While that came up to a boil, I cleaned and chopped a celeriac bulb (celery root) and dropped it into a small sauce pan with a cube of stock and some water. The bracing scent, strikingly reminiscent of raw green celery, filled the kitchen as it mingled with the melting stock. I chose to add this ingredient based on a cherished family recipe Mark shared with me soon after we moved in together. I have been waiting for the chance to use it and to try my hand at creating culinary nostalgia, when I spotted one at the market last week, I just couldn’t resist.

I boiled both pots for close to an hour, letting them reduce significantly and cooking the cauliflower and celeriac to a point they could be broken apart by a spoon. Then I took my immersion blender to the once firm vegetables. Once pureed, I combined the pots and added a cup of cream and around ¾ cup of parmigiano reggiano (ok, maybe a little more). I blended until silky smooth. While I was roasting the cauliflower, I had also cleaned and chopped some cremini mushrooms and tossed them in the oven, covered in white truffle oil. I pulled them out after about  40 minutes after they had gained a golden brown glisten, the scent of the truffle taking over the kitchen. Once the soup was satin smooth and reduced to the point of sticking to the back of the spoon, I served the egg-shell colored cream in colorful bowls floating a few dark, rick, roasted mushroom slices on top. I finished with a pinch of sea salt and a generous twist of fresh ground pepper. The result was delicious. The earthy, charred and garlic infused cauliflower played perfectly with the slightly astringent celeriac. The complex and fragrant stock brought it all together with the salty finish of the parmigiano taking the decadence to just the right point. Mark LOVED it. His only critique was that it could use a little heat. As someone who over seasons nearly everything I make to the point that my brow sweats, this was an affirmation of my successful demonstration of restraint, and I was happy to pass him the cayenne.

Soup and relationship success.