Review: Purple Carrot

PurpleCarrotRecipesMeal kit delivery services are all the rage now, but while I wrote a review of local healthy meal delivery services last fall for The Seattle Times, I’d never tried meal kit delivery. My curiosity recently got the best of me, and I decided to start by trying out Purple Carrot, the vegan meal delivery service that Mark Bittman left The New York Times for last fall. Ironically, right about the time my delivery of three meal kits arrived on my doorstep, I saw the news that Bittman had left Purple Carrot. When I tasted meal number one later that evening, I was pretty sure I knew why.

First, let me talk about the packaging. As other bloggers and reviewers have commented, there’s a lot of it. Each meal’s ingredients comes packaged together in a labeled plastic bag. Each ingredient (unless it’s a single object like a can of beans or a head of garlic) comes pre-measured and packaged in a little ziplock bag or other container. Fragile items like romaine lettuce are in their own separate bag. Inside the outer delivery box is an insulated bag with blue ice packs at the bottom, and a layer of cardboard between the ice and the food. This keeps the food in good shape, but again, it is a lot of packaging and something that kind of continually bothered us. At least we can reuse or recycle most of it.

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When you order from Purple Carrot, you either select three meals for two people for $68, or two meals for four people for $74 (there’s a discount code for $20 off your first order). They offer three meals per week, so we didn’t get to choose what we would receive, and I wasn’t super enthused about the menu, but I know that one of the benefits of these services is that sometime you end up trying—and liking—things you don’t expect to like.

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For our first meal, we decided to make the Jalapeno Corn Cakes with Fresh Bean Salad. Sounds promising, right? Not so much, unless you like food with no flavor. Here are the ingredients:

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The salad contained the fresh green and yellow beans, the tomatoes, and 1/2 to 1 can of pinto beans (cook’s choice). It was a decent size salad base, but the only seasoning came from one small minced garlic clove, two teaspoons of red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon of oil, a teeny bit of chopped parsley and a pinch (!) each of salt and pepper. Accordingly, when I tasted the salad, it essentially tasted like plain beans. I added more vinegar and salt. Still bland. I added the juice of half of lime from my personal stash, plus some green Tabasco. A bit better. Then I remembered that I had some fresh cilantro. In went about 1/3 of the bunch, chopped, and then the salad was palatable. Unlike the corn cakes, which tasted like corn but nothing else, and had a weird texture. Overall edible but not very interesting, and to add insult to injury I got hungry later that evening, which almost never happens (the portion sizes were ample, but don’t have much protein).

I wasn’t home for Meal 2, so I let Jeff take his pick of what he wanted to make. He chose the Mongolian Seitan Stir-Fry. When I got home, I was dying to find out how it was.

Me: “Well?”

Jeff: “It was a lot better…but it still needed help.”

He had to add extra garlic and tamari, plus some sesame oil, to make it sufficiently flavorful. The recipe called for using just “vegetable  oil” (Purple Carrot assumes you have oil, salt, pepper and water on hand), and that didn’t cut it. Other problems were that the recipe’s ingredient list and instructions specified “soy sauce,” but the tiny ziplock was labeled “tamari.” An experienced cook knows that the two are essentially the same thing, but a novice cook might not. Also, the recipe called for peeling the fresh ginger, but the piece included with the recipe was so slender and branched that peeling it was very difficult. Jeff managed by using a knife instead of a peeler, but as he pointed out, having a sharp knife made all the difference (ours are extremely sharp), but many people don’t keep their knives sharpened.

A high point was that neither of us had cooked with seitan (vegetarian “meat” made from wheat gluten), and we found that it indeed had a pleasing meat-like texture and took on the flavor of its seasonings. (I sampled the leftovers for lunch the next day.)

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Meal 3 was Pasta Puttanesca with Herb Salad. I made the pasta exactly as directed, and I am happy to report that it was sufficiently flavorful. But we were distracted by the knowledge of how little pasta + a can of tomatoes + a red onion + four garlic cloves + a tiny bit of capers and black olives would have cost us if we made this meal on our own. Far less than the per-meal cost via Purple Carrot (yes, yes, we are also paying for the shipping,  prepping and packaging). Plus, as Jeff said, “You could have totally made this on your own with your eyes closed, and it would have tasted better.” Bless him!

I opted to not make the herb salad (some slightly sad romaine + parsley + chives + olive oil + lemon juice) because I had been recipe testing some sautéed garlicky kale, sautéed cauliflower and a purslane salad with yogurt dressing and we preferred to eat those. I will note that there was a LOT of pasta puttanesca left over. We don’t eat pasta much, and the amount of pasta included with the recipe was far more than we would portion for ourselves. Again, there was almost no protein.

Overall, I don’t feel like the meal kits saved me much time in the kitchen. I still had to read and follow a new-to-me recipe and chop vegetables. Since I keep a well-stocked pantry, I don’t think the fact that I had to shop for three fewer meals was any benefit, either (I had to go to the store for other items, anyway). I didn’t like not having any choice in the meals, and if I did not have such a well-stocked pantry and fridge, I might have ended up feeding the first night’s bean salad to my backyard hens. Also, some of the produce was less-than optimal (one tomato was rotting, some of the string beans were getting a little funky on the ends where they were damaged during harvest, and the romaine didn’t look so good by day 3).

I’ve seen other reviews of Purple Carrot that mention how flavorful the meals are, so maybe we got a dud week (although here’s another review that mentions how bland the recipes were). We don’t eat out much, and cook with whole or minimally processed foods, so it’s not like our taste buds are trained to expect some artificially heightened sense of flavor. I think meal kit delivery services could be good for some newbie cooks who like using recipes but not shopping for them, but as mentioned there were a few oddities in these three meals that could have been confusing to a new cook.

There are many of these services out there (many of them start-ups that are funded by venture capital, so we’ll see how many of them last), so if the idea really appeals to you it might take a bit of trial and error to find a good fit. Purple Carrot’s meals did use whole or minimally processed foods, but protein was lower than optimal, and we still felt like we needed to add more vegetables than what was included. A very mixed bag, all in all.