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Delivered Chef Dinners

Sometimes, the second-to-last thing you want to do is dress up, get in the car, and go to a restaurant. The only alternative that’s worse? Shopping and cooking. Of course, this may apply more to women than men. When men are fixin’ to die, they’ll go out for a final burger. When women feel that way, they won’t go out for anything. Men are from dogs, women are from cats.

Whether you’re sick, tired, or sick and tired, when you’re hungry for something good to make up for a bad day, you become an open-mouthed fledgling peeping, “Mommy, feed me!” You don’t insist on four-star fine cuisine — but you do want something better than Pizza the Hut, and something faster than the 90-minute wait for a soggy “meals on wheels” delivery. And heating up some chemical-laden slop from the supermarket freezer cases just won’t do either, not if you care about what you put down your gullet. (What is disodium guanylate, anyway — double-salted dried bat poop?) You want real food, good food, equal to a decent restaurant or home-cooked meal, and you want it ready when you are — or in just a few minutes.

This widespread need came home to me recently when one of my best friends required surgery and months of follow-up treatments. She’s been the main cook in her household all these years. How would she and her husband cope during her illness? They have good palates, and though Stouffer’s frozen mac might be a fun novelty one night, it wouldn’t do for the long haul. (This piece is dedicated to MW — zei gezundt, hon!)

I’d received several catalogs from “home-delivered meal” companies, also available via the Internet, and searching the Web turned up more: DineWise, Home Bistro, and Impromptu Gourmet were the primary sources, plus the much more expensive Gourmetstation.com. This last (at a minimum of $50 plus shipping for an entrée and side dish to feed two) was truly upscale-restaurant priced, hence beyond my budget for testing if I wanted to try other alternatives. I also found some “live” local sources: Daily Dish and Optimal Nutrition. (A third, La Jolla’s Vida Gourmet, didn’t answer my email inquiry.) I didn’t look at “lifestyle” diet-meal services like Jenny Craig and NutriSystem — they’re more controlling and cultish (and probably costly) than I figured you’d want to deal with. I assume regular readers are devoted to the pleasure principle and won’t want to delegate their dining choices to some corporation.

(Another candidate flunked out before the testing even began: Last fall, after a flurry of snail-mail pitches from High Plains Bison, I ordered their “introductory pack” of buffalo steaks, burgers, and 32 ounces of ready-made bison chili. I love bison — at best, it’s like grass-fed beefsteak, but more intense, if a tad chewier. Apparently, High Plains specially slaughtered the toughest, oldest bull of its herd just for me, but the steaks and burgers were almost tasteless as well, perhaps frozen too long. Given the flavorless raw materials, I still haven’t dared defrost that daunting bag of chili.)

After looking over the menus on the various websites, I ordered three or four basic meals (entrée plus veggie) from each of the delivered-dinner sources, plus a few little extras, e.g., appetizers, soups, dips, and one dessert. Where possible, I ordered similar items to make direct comparisons. I also targeted the kinds of foods that I’d order in restaurants — game birds rather than chicken, braised meats rather than grilled (they’d reheat better), well-sauced seafood (rather than grilled, which might overcook when reheated).

First test was a “delivered dinner party.” Samurai Jim offered his modern kitchen, dining room, and amiable parrot Limpio (my new sweetie), who volunteered to join the human tasting team. (Limpio’s favorite: the low-carb cheesecake from Home Bistro.) This dinner began with a charming torte of Gorgonzola and sun-dried tomatoes (Home Bistro again), then a three-source seafood course, four “gourmet” poultry choices, and a four-piece slow-cooked meats course. Each of the posse filled out a form rating each food in each course, with space for comments. Then, over the next ten days, between restaurant meals, I tried to plow through the remainder myself, with direct comparisons wherever possible (a bite of this, a bite of that).

I literally bit off more than I could chew. Not only did I overbuy, but the more Internet foods I tasted, the less I wanted to taste. Most were not “chef quality,” although a few (some entrées from Impromptu Gourmet and appetizers from Home Bistro) stood out for flavor. To my disappointment, I never found a one-stop solution to the problem.

In the new best seller In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan’s first words are, “Eat food.” What he means is — real food, not chemicals, or weird derivatives from things that begin as food. Ordering from the Web, you can read the nutrient specifications before you buy, but not actual ingredients — for those, you need the packages. Once I read the fine print on the foods I ordered, I discovered that the majority included, along with chemical preservatives, tons of laboratory substances derived from actual food (mainly corn, wheat, and soybeans, America’s most heavily subsidized and industrialized crops — hence, cheap) that were transformed into such etiolated versions of themselves as “vegetable base” (huh?), hydrolyzed soy protein, modified food starch, and the ever-popular high-fructose corn syrup.

By contrast, even if the two local “live” private chefs don’t furnish food quite fit for the gods, at least their dishes are made entirely of — food.

LOCAL SOURCES:

Daily Dish

Ideal Client: Hildy Johnson. The careerist news reporter of His Girl Friday, incarnated by Rosalind Russell, would love Daily Dish — nice-looking, decent-tasting, fast, and convenient meals to enjoy after chasing a scoop through a 14-hour, lunchless workday. Another local publication awarded Daily Dish the designation of “Best Personal Chef.” You mainly get frozen meals (a few refrigerated) ready to reheat in oven or nuker, delivered in person by a “concierge” who will even put them into your freezer (or refrigerator) for you and explain how to reheat them. Unfortunately, once she’s gone, you won’t find instructions on the labels to remind you what to do. I wasn’t thrilled by any of the dishes I tried but found all of them edible, pleasant tasting, and attractively presented. Furthermore, unless you’re ravenous, the portions are large enough to lightly feed two, making these dinners a deal for, say, senior couples.

You can order specially prepared meals to suit your needs, including organic, low-carb, low-fat, low-cal, whatever. I ordered the basic vanilla versions of braised short ribs, fontina-stuffed portobello mushroom, and barbecued baby back ribs. At the testing dinner, scores ranged from 2 to 4.5 for the meats (I saved the portobello to eat at home), averaging 3 on a scale of 5, but comments about the accompaniments were less complimentary. Each dinner came with a huge mound of potato. The garlic mash, with little dairy, tasted like freeze-dried instant (“bland,” “not creamy,” “pasty,” wrote my fellow tasters). The hash browns and “scallion smashed” red potatoes were better, but I should have ordered low-carb to get more variation (and lower-glycemic carbs) among the starches. Only one of the tasting team tolerated the soggy vegetable medleys, which resembled supermarket frozen veggies. (Disclaimer: I do like C&W frozen low-sodium petite peas. These were not that good.) The stuffed portobello that I ate at home was heavy on bread crumbs but tasted dandy, so long as I didn’t compare it to the divine crab-stuffed portobello at Antica Trattoria — real chef food.

Daily Dish, 619-231-1398, or 866-686-DISH; dailydishchef.com. Minimum order: about $100. Average dinner price per meal, $23, including delivery, feeds one person generously, or two lightly. Breakfasts and lunches available. Natural meat and poultry, wild-caught fish; local/organic upon request; calorie-, fat-, and carb-control options; no preservatives. Most food frozen, some refrigerated; defrost if convenient, heat in oven or microwave. Website orders coming soon.

Optimal Nutrition, Inc.

Ideal Client: Kinsey Millhone. Sue Grafton’s fitness-proud tomboy detective would probably buy a lifetime subscription to these healthy prepared dinners. Optimal Nutrition furnishes all-organic frozen meals, ready to reheat, delivered by FedEx (or sometimes in person). Nonfrozen options are possible; call to discuss (ask for Michelle) or email [email protected] Rather than a large catalog of prepared foods, there’s a weekly menu (with several vegan options). Here, the aim is to furnish nutritionally perfect meals designed for the specific client. When you order, you complete a form indicating your sex, age, height, weight, and nutritional goal (e.g., better health, weight loss), and the meals are shaped for your specs. I disclosed only my height and sex, and the portions that arrived were modest but sufficient — perfectly sized for this female runt. Individual food packages don’t include reheating instructions on the labels, so you may have to play touchie-feelie with your food as the dinners heat in the nuker.

At the taste-test dinner, everybody immediately spotted the two Optimal dinners (salmon with lentils and curried turkey burger) as “health food,” because they looked like hospital food or hippie meals circa 1970. The main clue lay in the colors, or lack thereof: These meals present a portion of protein atop a beige field of variously flavored brown rice or other whole grains. (“Could lose the rice” was a typical comment.) We eat with our eyes as well as our mouths, and these entrées needed some colorful veggies. The consensus was that Optimal’s dishes were “benign” and “decent” rather than exciting; their average score was 2. The interesting whole-grain “pasta-pizza” made with kamut (which I served as a side) scored a little higher, but nobody would have wanted it as a main course. Overall, this operation is aimed at those who want to “fill ’er up, healthy.” Optimal isn’t a sybaritic choice, but it’s potentially a fine long-term solution for someone with no time or skills for cooking and more interested in good nutrition than luxury.

Optimal Nutrition, Inc., 858-202-0445 (Michelle’s number, 858-752-0594) and 877-678-7897; optimalnutritioninc.com. Minimum order varies (typically, dinners for five days). Prices based on portion size (based on questionnaire answers on recipient’s height, weight, age, and dietary goals), $13–$22, average $14 per dinner to feed one. Three meals daily available. Most food frozen to reheat in microwave; thaw first, if convenient.

ON THE WEB:

Impromptu Gourmet

Ideal Client: Emma Bovary (and sometimes N. Wise). Emma and Charles Bovary were French, almost guaranteeing decent palates. Emma might keep Charles distracted with tasty, easy-to-cook, not-quite-wholesome meals, while her own mind wandered to dreams of illicit love and fancy gowns. The best dishes from Impromptu were the winners (by far) for flavor, beating out even Daily Dish — the only real “gourmet” choices.

The tender honey-orange duck breast, the well-seasoned smoked pork back ribs, and the sweet potato soufflé all averaged 4.5 points at the group taste test, while even the lesser dishes like seafood cannelloni averaged 3. At the same time, this company’s offerings are liable to include numerous industrial food derivatives and outright fake foods (artificial flavors, colors, nondairy creamer, high-sodium preservatives). For example, a side dish of creamed artichoke hearts and spinach included approximately 50 ingredients, and that’s with unspecified “spices” summed up in a single word. (If you made it at home, you’d probably use fewer than ten.) The delicious swee’ po’ soufflé ingredients list was scandalous, loaded with artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, unidentifiable multisyllabic chemicals (can somebody “aluminate” me about the meaning of “sodium silico aluminate?”), and, as icing on the cake, nondairy creamer. High-fructose corn syrup frequently rears its ugly head (e.g., it’s so dominant in the barbecue sauce, I opted to buy the smoked ribs bare to dress with my own sauce).

Impromptu’s delivery time was ultra quick, but the packaging was traumatic to wrangle with. The FedEx guy staggered under the huge, 25-pound box containing barely 5 pounds of food. Inside the corrugated carton was a polystyrene container — standard packaging, but writ very large here. Inside that, on top of the little food boxes, were large plastic bags of dry ice, some of them ripped and “steaming.” Dry ice will do real damage if you touch it barehanded or breathe it for very long, so you have to put on oven mitts, quickly lift off the bags and chunks of ice, remove the food boxes, throw the ice back in the box, slap the lid back on to protect curious cats or birds, and shove the container out the door again to let the ice evaporate “in a well-ventilated area.” Don’t send any gift packages like this to your fragile old grandma.

Most Impromptu dishes require thawing before reheating (24–48 hours in the refrigerator), so they are scarcely “impromptu.” Some proved labor-intensive (e.g., sautéing and then roasting the duck — meaning, you’re buying a plump, raw duck breast soaked in a good marinade to cook from scratch, following excellent recipe directions). And yet — south of La Jolla, it’s awfully hard to find duck breast, much less ready-smoked ribs, and both those fine dishes were pretty “pure” as food, rather than “phaque phood.” Impromptu can be regarded as a health-compromised variation of specialty gourmet Web-and-mail-order food sources like Williams Sonoma, I-Gourmet, and Dean and DeLuca — a potential source of special treats rather than one’s quotidian diet. Emma Bovary, c’est moi!

Impromptu Gourmet, 877-632-5766; impromptugourmet.com. Entrées feed two, sometimes more (no sides included), average $25; average side dish (feeds three–four) $7. Dips, appetizers (various sizes, including hors d’oeuvre party platters), soups, desserts, and monthly gift plans available. Four-course complete meals for two (including bread), $55–$75. Several USDA Choice steaks available raw. Shipping $12–$40. Most entrées require defrosting before baking, nuking, or stovetop heating/cooking.

Home Bistro

Ideal Client: Elaine of Seinfeld. Elaine might want to throw a cool cocktail party without having to pay for a caterer or, God forbid, cook. Home Bistro could furnish the attractive hors d’oeuvres and appetizers (and let’s hope Elaine remembers to dispose of the packages before anybody sees them — you know she’ll lie about the source). Home alone, she could live on the flavorful, generous-sized appetizers, or heat and eat the effortless (if unthrilling) boil-in-the-bag entrées with her mind wandering off to her latest boss or boyfriend. Furthermore, Home Bistro offers a good selection of low-carb or “light” entrées, bound to appeal to a chic New Yorker.

This package came last (about ten days after ordering), with a few half-empty bags of dry ice evaporating away. This company generally used fewer nonfood or fake-food ingredients than the other Web choices, particularly in the appetizers. (For instance, the quiches were almost entirely made of food.) If you’re single and more excited by appetizers than entrées at restaurants, this could be a useful source — the appetizers are sized to feed one person as a main course or two as a first course. Whatever “real men” don’t eat, real women do eat quiche. I might actually reorder. Elaine, c’est moi aussi!

At the tasting dinner, the orange-ginger duck breast came with cute but soggy Chinese veggie dumplings; the duck was on the tough side (average score: 3). Sea scallops glazed with pomegranate sauce toughened up during the boil-in-bag reheating but still tasted like scallops (score: 2.5). Everyone liked the Gorgonzola torte that opened the tasting meal and Limpio’s fave low-carb cheesecake (six cakelets for $27) for dessert.

At home, I rather enjoyed the roasted crab cake (tasting of generic “shellfish” more than crab), an appetizer emphatically large enough to serve as my entrée. The accompanying lobster-and-corn sauce, however, was more “good try” than genuine gourmet food — suspiciously pasty from thickening with “modified food starch” rather than reduction of the cream — and what was cod liver oil doing in there? (Luckily, I couldn’t taste it.) A low-carb crab-artichoke-sun-dried-tomato quiche was both nice and nearly all natural. On the other hand, a portobello mushroom cap was filled with some unsavory “sausage” that was more like bland, shredded mystery meat. A low-carb “turkey with all the trimmings” dinner had pleasant cranberry-bread stuffing, but the turkey breast was abominably tough and dry, the gravy undistinguished, and the “crisp” onion shreds atop the green beans were soggy blobs.

This company also offers several sauces; I bought chili-spiked hollandaise and beurre blanc but haven’t used them yet. Their ingredient lists are bizarre, full o’ weird stuff and bearing little resemblance to simple, classic, labor-intensive recipes. Soon I’ll inflict one of them on an Albertsons’ ready-made spicy crab cake I’ve got in the freezer, another “too tired to cook” option. Couldn’t really hurt — or could it?

Home Bistro, 800-628-5588; homebistro.com. Average appetizer (sized for two or more, many good as entrées for one) about $7. Entrées to feed one, including side dishes, average about $17; lighter meals about $12. Shipping $15–$30. Low-carb entrées and desserts, other special dietary needs, samplers, monthly gift plans, and party hors d’oeuvres platters available. “Week of Dinners for 2 Sampler” $150. Most entrées “boil in bag” or nuke from frozen state.

DineWise

Ideal Client: Roseanne (from her eponymous TV show), or Marge Simpson’s sisters. Roseanne’s embodiment of a working-class mom didn’t expect a lot from life, but she appreciated anything that made it easier. DineWise does that, but with flavors and industrial ingredients comparable to TV dinners — sold at a much higher “gourmet” price (plus shipping), so it was the least wise choice for either flavor or value. Dine Dumb is more like it. Except for…ahh, the SoupMan.

The packaging and delivery time were decent: A single bag of dry ice, still largely intact, was under the food packages, intelligently labeled “handle with gloves.” (Impromptu didn’t give this advice.) The duck breast in Chinese barbecue sauce was the lowest rated of three duck dishes at the taste-off (“tough” and “dry”), scoring a 1. A turkey dinner (with more beets than turkey in it) featured thin, desiccated slices of poultry resembling supermarket packaged deli meat, with watery, insipid gravy swamping the stuffing (and 75 whopping grams of carbs). It was worse than a (cheap) supermarket frozen-turkey dinner, and way worse than Boston Market. The mush-meat texture and coarse sweetness of “Asian-style” short ribs reminded me of old-time college dorm food. The little crab cakes (to deep-fry, preferably) actually tasted okay, although redolent more of hot pepper and bread crumbs than of seafood.

You can opt for whole dinners with preset sides or order your own “mix and match” choices (which come to slightly higher prices). Most vegetable sides are three-ounce pouches of just plain veg, no butter or seasoning, for $2.19, making them very poor bargains, compared to regular supermarket frozen veggies or a nice fresh bagged salad. Fancier sides are $3.29 for four ounces: Corn fritters, baked following package directions, were pasty but not bad when deep-fried crisp with the crab cakes. “Apple pecan stuffing” was oddly sour. Low-carb sugar-free corn muffins (four for $8.39) were inedible sawdust.

But DineWise also offers a line of soups from the highly acclaimed SoupMan (celebrated on Seinfeld as “the soup Nazi”), about $10 each for 15 ounces (feeding two as a soup, one as a main dish). Their endless ingredient lists hint at chem-lab soup — but when I tasted the jambalaya I didn’t care, and you know when it comes to N’awlins food, I’m ultracritical of bad imitations. The bowl could have included cyanide; I still couldn’t stop sipping. Incredible flavor, perfect degree of spiciness (very lively, not scorching), yummy andouille sausage and tender shrimp and crawfish. Yeah, a surprise 4H stars, hydrolyzed fake stuff or no. Wonder what his seafood bisque tastes like…

DineWise, 800-365-9838 and 800-749-1170; dinewise.com. Entrée with two sides to feed one, average $12, or about $14 average to “mix and match” with choice of side. Shipping $15–$42. Four-course dinner for four, $129. Some low-carb and “healthy” meals available, “SoupMan” soups, appetizers, desserts, full (three meals) weekly meal plans, samplers, gift plans available; also “cook your own” steaks (no USDA grade specified) and lobster tails. “Senior Lifestyles” package is $199 for three low-cal, low-fat, low-carb, low-sodium meals a day for a week. Same price for a week’s “Weight-Loss Meal Plans” or 16 “Healthy Lifestyle” dinners. Reheat unthawed packages in microwave (or oven).

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Sometimes, the second-to-last thing you want to do is dress up, get in the car, and go to a restaurant. The only alternative that’s worse? Shopping and cooking. Of course, this may apply more to women than men. When men are fixin’ to die, they’ll go out for a final burger. When women feel that way, they won’t go out for anything. Men are from dogs, women are from cats.

Whether you’re sick, tired, or sick and tired, when you’re hungry for something good to make up for a bad day, you become an open-mouthed fledgling peeping, “Mommy, feed me!” You don’t insist on four-star fine cuisine — but you do want something better than Pizza the Hut, and something faster than the 90-minute wait for a soggy “meals on wheels” delivery. And heating up some chemical-laden slop from the supermarket freezer cases just won’t do either, not if you care about what you put down your gullet. (What is disodium guanylate, anyway — double-salted dried bat poop?) You want real food, good food, equal to a decent restaurant or home-cooked meal, and you want it ready when you are — or in just a few minutes.

This widespread need came home to me recently when one of my best friends required surgery and months of follow-up treatments. She’s been the main cook in her household all these years. How would she and her husband cope during her illness? They have good palates, and though Stouffer’s frozen mac might be a fun novelty one night, it wouldn’t do for the long haul. (This piece is dedicated to MW — zei gezundt, hon!)

I’d received several catalogs from “home-delivered meal” companies, also available via the Internet, and searching the Web turned up more: DineWise, Home Bistro, and Impromptu Gourmet were the primary sources, plus the much more expensive Gourmetstation.com. This last (at a minimum of $50 plus shipping for an entrée and side dish to feed two) was truly upscale-restaurant priced, hence beyond my budget for testing if I wanted to try other alternatives. I also found some “live” local sources: Daily Dish and Optimal Nutrition. (A third, La Jolla’s Vida Gourmet, didn’t answer my email inquiry.) I didn’t look at “lifestyle” diet-meal services like Jenny Craig and NutriSystem — they’re more controlling and cultish (and probably costly) than I figured you’d want to deal with. I assume regular readers are devoted to the pleasure principle and won’t want to delegate their dining choices to some corporation.

(Another candidate flunked out before the testing even began: Last fall, after a flurry of snail-mail pitches from High Plains Bison, I ordered their “introductory pack” of buffalo steaks, burgers, and 32 ounces of ready-made bison chili. I love bison — at best, it’s like grass-fed beefsteak, but more intense, if a tad chewier. Apparently, High Plains specially slaughtered the toughest, oldest bull of its herd just for me, but the steaks and burgers were almost tasteless as well, perhaps frozen too long. Given the flavorless raw materials, I still haven’t dared defrost that daunting bag of chili.)

After looking over the menus on the various websites, I ordered three or four basic meals (entrée plus veggie) from each of the delivered-dinner sources, plus a few little extras, e.g., appetizers, soups, dips, and one dessert. Where possible, I ordered similar items to make direct comparisons. I also targeted the kinds of foods that I’d order in restaurants — game birds rather than chicken, braised meats rather than grilled (they’d reheat better), well-sauced seafood (rather than grilled, which might overcook when reheated).

First test was a “delivered dinner party.” Samurai Jim offered his modern kitchen, dining room, and amiable parrot Limpio (my new sweetie), who volunteered to join the human tasting team. (Limpio’s favorite: the low-carb cheesecake from Home Bistro.) This dinner began with a charming torte of Gorgonzola and sun-dried tomatoes (Home Bistro again), then a three-source seafood course, four “gourmet” poultry choices, and a four-piece slow-cooked meats course. Each of the posse filled out a form rating each food in each course, with space for comments. Then, over the next ten days, between restaurant meals, I tried to plow through the remainder myself, with direct comparisons wherever possible (a bite of this, a bite of that).

I literally bit off more than I could chew. Not only did I overbuy, but the more Internet foods I tasted, the less I wanted to taste. Most were not “chef quality,” although a few (some entrées from Impromptu Gourmet and appetizers from Home Bistro) stood out for flavor. To my disappointment, I never found a one-stop solution to the problem.

In the new best seller In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan’s first words are, “Eat food.” What he means is — real food, not chemicals, or weird derivatives from things that begin as food. Ordering from the Web, you can read the nutrient specifications before you buy, but not actual ingredients — for those, you need the packages. Once I read the fine print on the foods I ordered, I discovered that the majority included, along with chemical preservatives, tons of laboratory substances derived from actual food (mainly corn, wheat, and soybeans, America’s most heavily subsidized and industrialized crops — hence, cheap) that were transformed into such etiolated versions of themselves as “vegetable base” (huh?), hydrolyzed soy protein, modified food starch, and the ever-popular high-fructose corn syrup.

By contrast, even if the two local “live” private chefs don’t furnish food quite fit for the gods, at least their dishes are made entirely of — food.

LOCAL SOURCES:

Daily Dish

Ideal Client: Hildy Johnson. The careerist news reporter of His Girl Friday, incarnated by Rosalind Russell, would love Daily Dish — nice-looking, decent-tasting, fast, and convenient meals to enjoy after chasing a scoop through a 14-hour, lunchless workday. Another local publication awarded Daily Dish the designation of “Best Personal Chef.” You mainly get frozen meals (a few refrigerated) ready to reheat in oven or nuker, delivered in person by a “concierge” who will even put them into your freezer (or refrigerator) for you and explain how to reheat them. Unfortunately, once she’s gone, you won’t find instructions on the labels to remind you what to do. I wasn’t thrilled by any of the dishes I tried but found all of them edible, pleasant tasting, and attractively presented. Furthermore, unless you’re ravenous, the portions are large enough to lightly feed two, making these dinners a deal for, say, senior couples.

You can order specially prepared meals to suit your needs, including organic, low-carb, low-fat, low-cal, whatever. I ordered the basic vanilla versions of braised short ribs, fontina-stuffed portobello mushroom, and barbecued baby back ribs. At the testing dinner, scores ranged from 2 to 4.5 for the meats (I saved the portobello to eat at home), averaging 3 on a scale of 5, but comments about the accompaniments were less complimentary. Each dinner came with a huge mound of potato. The garlic mash, with little dairy, tasted like freeze-dried instant (“bland,” “not creamy,” “pasty,” wrote my fellow tasters). The hash browns and “scallion smashed” red potatoes were better, but I should have ordered low-carb to get more variation (and lower-glycemic carbs) among the starches. Only one of the tasting team tolerated the soggy vegetable medleys, which resembled supermarket frozen veggies. (Disclaimer: I do like C&W frozen low-sodium petite peas. These were not that good.) The stuffed portobello that I ate at home was heavy on bread crumbs but tasted dandy, so long as I didn’t compare it to the divine crab-stuffed portobello at Antica Trattoria — real chef food.

Daily Dish, 619-231-1398, or 866-686-DISH; dailydishchef.com. Minimum order: about $100. Average dinner price per meal, $23, including delivery, feeds one person generously, or two lightly. Breakfasts and lunches available. Natural meat and poultry, wild-caught fish; local/organic upon request; calorie-, fat-, and carb-control options; no preservatives. Most food frozen, some refrigerated; defrost if convenient, heat in oven or microwave. Website orders coming soon.

Optimal Nutrition, Inc.

Ideal Client: Kinsey Millhone. Sue Grafton’s fitness-proud tomboy detective would probably buy a lifetime subscription to these healthy prepared dinners. Optimal Nutrition furnishes all-organic frozen meals, ready to reheat, delivered by FedEx (or sometimes in person). Nonfrozen options are possible; call to discuss (ask for Michelle) or email [email protected] Rather than a large catalog of prepared foods, there’s a weekly menu (with several vegan options). Here, the aim is to furnish nutritionally perfect meals designed for the specific client. When you order, you complete a form indicating your sex, age, height, weight, and nutritional goal (e.g., better health, weight loss), and the meals are shaped for your specs. I disclosed only my height and sex, and the portions that arrived were modest but sufficient — perfectly sized for this female runt. Individual food packages don’t include reheating instructions on the labels, so you may have to play touchie-feelie with your food as the dinners heat in the nuker.

At the taste-test dinner, everybody immediately spotted the two Optimal dinners (salmon with lentils and curried turkey burger) as “health food,” because they looked like hospital food or hippie meals circa 1970. The main clue lay in the colors, or lack thereof: These meals present a portion of protein atop a beige field of variously flavored brown rice or other whole grains. (“Could lose the rice” was a typical comment.) We eat with our eyes as well as our mouths, and these entrées needed some colorful veggies. The consensus was that Optimal’s dishes were “benign” and “decent” rather than exciting; their average score was 2. The interesting whole-grain “pasta-pizza” made with kamut (which I served as a side) scored a little higher, but nobody would have wanted it as a main course. Overall, this operation is aimed at those who want to “fill ’er up, healthy.” Optimal isn’t a sybaritic choice, but it’s potentially a fine long-term solution for someone with no time or skills for cooking and more interested in good nutrition than luxury.

Optimal Nutrition, Inc., 858-202-0445 (Michelle’s number, 858-752-0594) and 877-678-7897; optimalnutritioninc.com. Minimum order varies (typically, dinners for five days). Prices based on portion size (based on questionnaire answers on recipient’s height, weight, age, and dietary goals), $13–$22, average $14 per dinner to feed one. Three meals daily available. Most food frozen to reheat in microwave; thaw first, if convenient.

ON THE WEB:

Impromptu Gourmet

Ideal Client: Emma Bovary (and sometimes N. Wise). Emma and Charles Bovary were French, almost guaranteeing decent palates. Emma might keep Charles distracted with tasty, easy-to-cook, not-quite-wholesome meals, while her own mind wandered to dreams of illicit love and fancy gowns. The best dishes from Impromptu were the winners (by far) for flavor, beating out even Daily Dish — the only real “gourmet” choices.

The tender honey-orange duck breast, the well-seasoned smoked pork back ribs, and the sweet potato soufflé all averaged 4.5 points at the group taste test, while even the lesser dishes like seafood cannelloni averaged 3. At the same time, this company’s offerings are liable to include numerous industrial food derivatives and outright fake foods (artificial flavors, colors, nondairy creamer, high-sodium preservatives). For example, a side dish of creamed artichoke hearts and spinach included approximately 50 ingredients, and that’s with unspecified “spices” summed up in a single word. (If you made it at home, you’d probably use fewer than ten.) The delicious swee’ po’ soufflé ingredients list was scandalous, loaded with artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, unidentifiable multisyllabic chemicals (can somebody “aluminate” me about the meaning of “sodium silico aluminate?”), and, as icing on the cake, nondairy creamer. High-fructose corn syrup frequently rears its ugly head (e.g., it’s so dominant in the barbecue sauce, I opted to buy the smoked ribs bare to dress with my own sauce).

Impromptu’s delivery time was ultra quick, but the packaging was traumatic to wrangle with. The FedEx guy staggered under the huge, 25-pound box containing barely 5 pounds of food. Inside the corrugated carton was a polystyrene container — standard packaging, but writ very large here. Inside that, on top of the little food boxes, were large plastic bags of dry ice, some of them ripped and “steaming.” Dry ice will do real damage if you touch it barehanded or breathe it for very long, so you have to put on oven mitts, quickly lift off the bags and chunks of ice, remove the food boxes, throw the ice back in the box, slap the lid back on to protect curious cats or birds, and shove the container out the door again to let the ice evaporate “in a well-ventilated area.” Don’t send any gift packages like this to your fragile old grandma.

Most Impromptu dishes require thawing before reheating (24–48 hours in the refrigerator), so they are scarcely “impromptu.” Some proved labor-intensive (e.g., sautéing and then roasting the duck — meaning, you’re buying a plump, raw duck breast soaked in a good marinade to cook from scratch, following excellent recipe directions). And yet — south of La Jolla, it’s awfully hard to find duck breast, much less ready-smoked ribs, and both those fine dishes were pretty “pure” as food, rather than “phaque phood.” Impromptu can be regarded as a health-compromised variation of specialty gourmet Web-and-mail-order food sources like Williams Sonoma, I-Gourmet, and Dean and DeLuca — a potential source of special treats rather than one’s quotidian diet. Emma Bovary, c’est moi!

Impromptu Gourmet, 877-632-5766; impromptugourmet.com. Entrées feed two, sometimes more (no sides included), average $25; average side dish (feeds three–four) $7. Dips, appetizers (various sizes, including hors d’oeuvre party platters), soups, desserts, and monthly gift plans available. Four-course complete meals for two (including bread), $55–$75. Several USDA Choice steaks available raw. Shipping $12–$40. Most entrées require defrosting before baking, nuking, or stovetop heating/cooking.

Home Bistro

Ideal Client: Elaine of Seinfeld. Elaine might want to throw a cool cocktail party without having to pay for a caterer or, God forbid, cook. Home Bistro could furnish the attractive hors d’oeuvres and appetizers (and let’s hope Elaine remembers to dispose of the packages before anybody sees them — you know she’ll lie about the source). Home alone, she could live on the flavorful, generous-sized appetizers, or heat and eat the effortless (if unthrilling) boil-in-the-bag entrées with her mind wandering off to her latest boss or boyfriend. Furthermore, Home Bistro offers a good selection of low-carb or “light” entrées, bound to appeal to a chic New Yorker.

This package came last (about ten days after ordering), with a few half-empty bags of dry ice evaporating away. This company generally used fewer nonfood or fake-food ingredients than the other Web choices, particularly in the appetizers. (For instance, the quiches were almost entirely made of food.) If you’re single and more excited by appetizers than entrées at restaurants, this could be a useful source — the appetizers are sized to feed one person as a main course or two as a first course. Whatever “real men” don’t eat, real women do eat quiche. I might actually reorder. Elaine, c’est moi aussi!

At the tasting dinner, the orange-ginger duck breast came with cute but soggy Chinese veggie dumplings; the duck was on the tough side (average score: 3). Sea scallops glazed with pomegranate sauce toughened up during the boil-in-bag reheating but still tasted like scallops (score: 2.5). Everyone liked the Gorgonzola torte that opened the tasting meal and Limpio’s fave low-carb cheesecake (six cakelets for $27) for dessert.

At home, I rather enjoyed the roasted crab cake (tasting of generic “shellfish” more than crab), an appetizer emphatically large enough to serve as my entrée. The accompanying lobster-and-corn sauce, however, was more “good try” than genuine gourmet food — suspiciously pasty from thickening with “modified food starch” rather than reduction of the cream — and what was cod liver oil doing in there? (Luckily, I couldn’t taste it.) A low-carb crab-artichoke-sun-dried-tomato quiche was both nice and nearly all natural. On the other hand, a portobello mushroom cap was filled with some unsavory “sausage” that was more like bland, shredded mystery meat. A low-carb “turkey with all the trimmings” dinner had pleasant cranberry-bread stuffing, but the turkey breast was abominably tough and dry, the gravy undistinguished, and the “crisp” onion shreds atop the green beans were soggy blobs.

This company also offers several sauces; I bought chili-spiked hollandaise and beurre blanc but haven’t used them yet. Their ingredient lists are bizarre, full o’ weird stuff and bearing little resemblance to simple, classic, labor-intensive recipes. Soon I’ll inflict one of them on an Albertsons’ ready-made spicy crab cake I’ve got in the freezer, another “too tired to cook” option. Couldn’t really hurt — or could it?

Home Bistro, 800-628-5588; homebistro.com. Average appetizer (sized for two or more, many good as entrées for one) about $7. Entrées to feed one, including side dishes, average about $17; lighter meals about $12. Shipping $15–$30. Low-carb entrées and desserts, other special dietary needs, samplers, monthly gift plans, and party hors d’oeuvres platters available. “Week of Dinners for 2 Sampler” $150. Most entrées “boil in bag” or nuke from frozen state.

DineWise

Ideal Client: Roseanne (from her eponymous TV show), or Marge Simpson’s sisters. Roseanne’s embodiment of a working-class mom didn’t expect a lot from life, but she appreciated anything that made it easier. DineWise does that, but with flavors and industrial ingredients comparable to TV dinners — sold at a much higher “gourmet” price (plus shipping), so it was the least wise choice for either flavor or value. Dine Dumb is more like it. Except for…ahh, the SoupMan.

The packaging and delivery time were decent: A single bag of dry ice, still largely intact, was under the food packages, intelligently labeled “handle with gloves.” (Impromptu didn’t give this advice.) The duck breast in Chinese barbecue sauce was the lowest rated of three duck dishes at the taste-off (“tough” and “dry”), scoring a 1. A turkey dinner (with more beets than turkey in it) featured thin, desiccated slices of poultry resembling supermarket packaged deli meat, with watery, insipid gravy swamping the stuffing (and 75 whopping grams of carbs). It was worse than a (cheap) supermarket frozen-turkey dinner, and way worse than Boston Market. The mush-meat texture and coarse sweetness of “Asian-style” short ribs reminded me of old-time college dorm food. The little crab cakes (to deep-fry, preferably) actually tasted okay, although redolent more of hot pepper and bread crumbs than of seafood.

You can opt for whole dinners with preset sides or order your own “mix and match” choices (which come to slightly higher prices). Most vegetable sides are three-ounce pouches of just plain veg, no butter or seasoning, for $2.19, making them very poor bargains, compared to regular supermarket frozen veggies or a nice fresh bagged salad. Fancier sides are $3.29 for four ounces: Corn fritters, baked following package directions, were pasty but not bad when deep-fried crisp with the crab cakes. “Apple pecan stuffing” was oddly sour. Low-carb sugar-free corn muffins (four for $8.39) were inedible sawdust.

But DineWise also offers a line of soups from the highly acclaimed SoupMan (celebrated on Seinfeld as “the soup Nazi”), about $10 each for 15 ounces (feeding two as a soup, one as a main dish). Their endless ingredient lists hint at chem-lab soup — but when I tasted the jambalaya I didn’t care, and you know when it comes to N’awlins food, I’m ultracritical of bad imitations. The bowl could have included cyanide; I still couldn’t stop sipping. Incredible flavor, perfect degree of spiciness (very lively, not scorching), yummy andouille sausage and tender shrimp and crawfish. Yeah, a surprise 4H stars, hydrolyzed fake stuff or no. Wonder what his seafood bisque tastes like…

DineWise, 800-365-9838 and 800-749-1170; dinewise.com. Entrée with two sides to feed one, average $12, or about $14 average to “mix and match” with choice of side. Shipping $15–$42. Four-course dinner for four, $129. Some low-carb and “healthy” meals available, “SoupMan” soups, appetizers, desserts, full (three meals) weekly meal plans, samplers, gift plans available; also “cook your own” steaks (no USDA grade specified) and lobster tails. “Senior Lifestyles” package is $199 for three low-cal, low-fat, low-carb, low-sodium meals a day for a week. Same price for a week’s “Weight-Loss Meal Plans” or 16 “Healthy Lifestyle” dinners. Reheat unthawed packages in microwave (or oven).

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Comments
1

Thank you for your article.

After reading it, I decided not to go this route of buying a gift card for 2 of my team members.

I read a nasty review about Impromptu Gourmet, & then when I heard they put all this garbage in their food, I said it's not worth it.

Now I'm searching for personal chefs & if that fails as one is in a small town, I'll just have to find restaurants LOL & yes I know in the end most of them put garbage in their food too, but what can we do : )

Happy Holidays!

Michelle

Dec. 9, 2008

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