Friday, October 14, 2016

Lowcountry Bodega maps out your meals, but will it save your soul?

Cooking by Numbers

Posted by Stephanie Barna on Fri, Oct 14, 2016 at 1:10 PM

click to enlarge Lowcountry Bodega sets up at the James Island’s Sunday Brunch Farmer’s Market - STEPHANIE BARNA
  • Stephanie Barna
  • Lowcountry Bodega sets up at the James Island’s Sunday Brunch Farmer’s Market

Cooking’s not the problem. It’s the planning. The grocery shopping. The monotony of family favorites and easy dinners. The rotten vegetables abandoned in the crisper preventing you from heading to the store for a hopeful new batch of produce. The never-ending cycle of breakfast, lunch, and dinner plus two snacks a day. It’s enough to send a girl to the sushi counter at Harris Teeter for a day-old California roll (for the kids) or to my pantry for a can of beans and some rice (for me).

A few weeks ago, inundated with discounted offers for Blue Apron, I threw in the dishtowel and ordered up a subscription. I figured why not? Maybe it would inject my repertoire with some new dishes and give me a break from the boredom of planning and shopping for food. I had resisted mainly because Blue Apron lacked a local or regional food option. But who cares when you can spend $50 on a month of food without having to shop once, right? (My Blue Apron, with a discount for joining, was $39.92 for two dinners for four people for the first week and then $69.92 for two dinners for four for second week.)

But before my first Blue Apron box arrived in the mail, I stumbled upon Lowcountry Bodega, a local meal kit option, at James Island’s Sunday Brunch Farmer’s Market. What’s that you say? I can get a triple-cut WadmaHog pork chop from farmer Tank Jackson of Holy City Hogs (without having to see it butchered) along with a spicy pre-made gazpacho using shishitos from Rooting Down Farms and an end-of-summer succotash with squash, string beans, and fregola? I’m in.

We purchased three $16 meal kits (enough to feed six people easily) and invited some extra family members over to share the meal. That evening, I unpacked my treasures and discovered everything I needed to pull the meal together along with instructions on cooking the proteins, preparing the vegetables, and even plating the food.

click to enlarge LCB provides step-by-step instructions with each kit - STEPHANIE BARNA
  • Stephanie Barna
  • LCB provides step-by-step instructions with each kit

The chops were massive and beautiful. Pure heritage pork — three big ones were definitely enough to feed the extended family. We threw the meat on the grill and then dished up bowls of the pre-made gazpacho, a spicy and fresh kick off to the dinner that everyone appreciated. Cooking the vegetable dish proved to be the biggest challenge, mainly because I’m not used to following directions when I cook.

My approach to cooking is more about what’s almost gone bad in my fridge and less about Alice Waters’ what’s-fresh-in-the-fields ideal. Some nights, all goes as planned, and we have a vibrant pasta primavera or a succulent braised pork loin with fresh veggies on the side and some rice and pan gravy (the closest thing to a sauce I make). Most likely, though, we’re stir-frying up stray limp vegetables with as much ginger and garlic as we can muster to mask the taste of the old veggie drawer. Still, no matter what I’m throwing together for dinner, cooking has become automatic — smashing garlic, chopping veggies, stirring pots is my evening therapy.

click to enlarge LCB's pre-packaged ingredients - STEPHANIE BARNA
  • Stephanie Barna
  • LCB's pre-packaged ingredients

Following someone else’s directions for dinner makes me uncomfortable and a little annoyed — why should I do it that way? Are you sure I should use all this butter, it seems like an awful lot? A pile of puree? Really, do I have to put my pork chop on a swirl of dill, carrot, and sorghum mush? Seems so ridiculously fancy.

But that’s how Lowcountry Bodega differs from a meal kit like Blue Apron. This is restaurant quality fare — something you’d probably be able to eat and afford once a week. The LCB guys are chefs, having worked in kitchens like Fat Hen and 167 Raw, so they’re helping you put together a fancy meal in as few steps as possible. They’ve parboiled the fregola so you don’t have to spend 20 minutes simmering it on the stove, they’ve made a compound garlic butter for seasoning your succotash, they’ve even prepared a peach-lemon verbena mostarda for topping your pork chop. They take the extra step so you don’t have to (as if I would).

After our full LCB meal that Sunday, which impressed us with its breadth and quality, a Blue Apron box showed up on Wednesday with two nights of meals, recipes I had preselected on their website. I went with the hoisin beef and vegetable stir-fry and the pan-fried Francese-style chicken. The beautifully branded and thermally cooled box landed on the porch and after unpacking and unpacking and unpacking (there’s a lot of packaging), we ended up with a whole bunch of adorable little bottles labeled with their pre-measured ingredients (rice vinegar, hoisin, dijon mustard, parmesan cheese). Unfortunately, I have most of these things in my pantry along with a host of other ingredients they shipped my way: eggs, flour, tomatoes, lemons, rice, potatoes. Hell, I usually even have some sort of semi-wilted all-purpose green in my fridge that could take the place of arugula. I felt kind of stupid having these things sent to me. It’s like when I order toilet paper from Amazon. Could you be any lazier as a human being?

I gamely tackled the first recipe — hoisin steak stir-fry. I literally make one stir-fry every week, mainly because my kids freaking love stir-fried rice, I have a ridiculously fancy rice cooker that can make rice at 10 cups a clip and keep it warm all week, and I always have something, even if it’s an egg, that can jazz things up. I thought I’d see what Blue Apron’s recipe offered that might have escaped my on-the-fly approach to stir-frying.

Looking at Blue Apron’s beautiful step-by-step recipe, my daughter balked and pleaded with me to make my stir-fry because the Blue Apron one looked bad and boring and sucky and she didn’t want to eat that one. Ugh. So I pretty much abandoned the recipe and cooked like I normally do and everyone was happy. I never got around to cooking that second meal because life interrupted my plans, so the chicken eventually went bad, and then I received my second shipment of two dinners, which also sort of wallowed ignored in the refrigerator until I got around to making the shrimp and grits that nobody ended up eating, so I fed it to my chickens. A note on that shrimp, even though they weren’t local, they were sourced sustainably from the Gulf and didn’t come from some sludge pond in Thailand. But still, my Blue Apron experience was a dismal failure — through no fault of the service and I swiftly canceled before another box could taunt me with my shortcomings as a functioning adult.

click to enlarge Blue Apron's stir-fry recipe - STEPHANIE BARNA
  • Stephanie Barna
  • Blue Apron's stir-fry recipe

While I may not be well suited to the glamorous pre-ordered meal kit life, I will head back to Lowcountry Bodega again. Mainly because it’s on my terms. I can buy it that morning at the farmers market or not. The service is also a good value for local heritage pork and vegetables. If I’m going to spend premium dough on local fare, I might as well let these guys help me treat it better than I would on my own because there’s a lot of shame in letting beautiful local produce and meat rot in the fridge. And we all know how I fare on that end of things.

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