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Food critic reviews Blue Apron, Dinnerly and more meal delivery kits

Dinnerly's shrimp scampi.

Dinnerly's shrimp scampi. Credit: Newsday/Scott Vogel

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For many people, eating out is natural. Self-cooking is not.

But here we are.

For almost 10 years, a multitude of subscription-based companies have been marketing home-cooked meals to consumers who don’t have time to shop for them. All you need do is select which meals you want and when you want them, and then sit back and wait for your ice-pack-lined box to arrive complete with step-by-step recipes and all the ingredients needed, minus kitchen staples like salt and vinegar.

And just like that, all of our past objections to paint-by-number cooking — namely that it’s an expensive, pre-portioned waste of time — vanish in the face of gnawing hunger and endless hours with nothing to do. Why not use this time to learn culinary self-reliance, asks the voice. Others have taught themselves to refrigerate individually wrapped ingredients and carefully follow the 73 steps needed to reach dinner. Why not us?

Below are some of America’s most popular meal kit delivery services, all of which I recently road-tested. Each offers menus that change weekly, multiple serving sizes (usually two or four) and plans that differ in both numbers of meals delivered and how often. The bad news: Shipping is extra, and all require subscriptions that must be opted out of in order for deliveries (and credit card charges) to stop. The good: many offer introductory discounts.

SUN BASKET

Slogan: Eat Clean, Feel Great

Price per serving: $10.99-$12.99

Info: sunbasket.com

The pitch: Launched in 2014, this service’s meals are shipped with organic produce, along with meat products free of antibiotics, hormones and the like. Uniquely conscious that its patrons’ vary in both dietary preferences and cooking skill/interest, the company offers everything from soy-free to diabetic-friendly options, as well as meals that arrive unprepped, pre-prepped, or just-shove-it-in-the-oven.

The verdict: While perhaps ideally suited for Mediterranean-dieting pescaterians looking to impress GMO-free, responsibly-sourced, paleo someone’s — all of us, in other words — you needn’t be an environmentalist on a special diet to enjoy Sun Basket’s meals. Indeed, you needn’t even be much of a cook, period. Anyone capable of removing cellophane from cartons, covering them with foil and opening and closing an oven door will be rewarded by a fine butter chicken with basmati rice pilaf in minutes (although the flame-resistant containers do turn a worrisome shade of brown). Even better, if slightly more labor intensive, are the brightly flavored pork carnitas tacos, capable of fooling almost anyone into believing that you know your way around Mexican oregano and Aleppo chile flakes. The fried eggs atop my shakshuka, apparently embarrassed by how little they resembled the ones pictured on the recipe card, migrated to the edges of the skillet, which for some reason made me forget to add the crumbled feta, which undoubtedly would have improved its flavor. “Your guests will gush over this vegetarian breakfast-for-dinner,” read the recipe card, thereby revealing how little Sun Basket knows about my guests, who’ve no idea what shakshuka is and rarely gush.

DINNERLY

Slogan: Easy, affordable, tasty dinners

Price per serving: $4.49-$4.99

Info: dinnerly.com

The pitch: Among the most economical meal kits, this service, launched in 2017, offers 16 recipes to choose from each week, all of them fast, straightforward, and accomplishable in five steps or less. Meals are composed of few ingredients, while recipe cards are digital rather than paper (which supposedly keeps down costs) and constantly acknowledge that “we know you’re busy”— so much so, I began to question exactly how busy I actually am.

The verdict: I am not confident in my assessment of this company’s meals, which I prepared last, after the previous nine meals had turned my tiny kitchen into a crime scene, and the apartment itself into …. Let’s just say that if a food court could hallucinate, it would smell like my apartment. Adding insult to injury, Dinnerly’s meals were conscripted into participating in a Newsday photo shoot. The shrimp refused to cooperate with our photographer under hot lights, and by the time the session was over, scampi seemed like a dangerous gamble. After buying replacements, I quickly and easily prepared a delicious plate with firm spears of broccoli and spaghetti al dente. (Too bad the box hadn’t come with the “zesty, crispy glass of Chardonnay” suggested by the recipe.) Moving on, I happened upon a curious meal that can only be described as a deconstructed egg roll. A stir-fry of ground beef augmented by cabbage and jasmine rice, it was a hearty bargain lacking only duck sauce packets to complete the effect. My final meal gave the lie to those who think that no pot pie is complete without either chicken or beef. All that Dinnerly’s uber-heavy veggie version requires is 40 minutes spent prepping carrots, corn, green beans, Cheddar cheese and drop biscuits. Oh, and a two-hour postprandial nap.

BLUE APRON

Slogan: A better way to cook

Price per serving: $7.49-$14.99

Info: blueapron.com

The pitch: In business since 2012, this market leader (only Hello Fresh is more popular) offers recipes designed to nudge cooks out of their comfort zones with a selection of 12 weekly meals, some by prominent chefs. Ancillary materials include detailed nutritional facts, small ingredients packaged together by dish, as well as recipe cards with photos of each component, perfect for those who don’t know what a carrot looks like.

The verdict: Blue Apron sometimes seems like more of a noodge than a nudge, its recipe cards promising “incredible depth of flavor” this, and “delightfully springy” that, promises it doesn’t always deliver. But its focus on finding the exotic in the familiar often pays off, as with a meal of smoky roasted carrots and jalapeño burgers, the latter paired with a wonderful goat cheese and mustard spread. The curry pork noodles with red cabbage and peanuts were memorable mostly for an explosion — possibly brought on by my fatigue at opening so many packages — that sent dried shiitake mushrooms flying in all directions, but I enjoyed that dish, too (especially after some remedial seasoning). On the one hand, I found the vegetarian meal — polenta sauced with chilies and cremini mushrooms, and dressed with a soft-boiled egg — to be baffling, not to mention a helpful reminder of why I’m not a vegetarian. On the other hand, I learned how to properly prepare baby bok choy and shishito peppers, a skill that I suppose might come in handy someday. On the third hand, my polenta took much longer to cook than the projected 15-19 minutes. I think it took twice that long. Actually, I think it’s still cooking somewhere.

MARTHA & MARLEY SPOON

Slogan: Cook, relax and enjoy!

Price per serving: $6.99-$10.25

Info: marleyspoon.com

The pitch: This partnership between a German meal kit purveyor and Martha Stewart, based on the latter’s recipes, began in 2016. It features a bountiful weekly selection of 22 recipes, meals helpfully packed in separate brown paper bags, (relatively) unwasteful packaging, and beautiful full-color recipe cards sure to showcase how poorly your own cooking stacks up to Martha’s.

The verdict: Martha’s personal guilty pleasure, reads the beautifully designed brochure, is “a spoon of sweetened condensed milk straight from the can,” which put me at ease, as that is my guilty pleasure as well, even if I’m more the inhale-the-entire-can type. My diastolics and systolics shot up, however, upon opening the bag for M’s crispy pecan-crusted salmon with roasted broccoli and sweet potato fries. Over the next 40 minutes, by which I mean an hour, I happily zested a lemon, had an uncomfortable encounter with a few dill fronds and wondered aloud just how much oil is in a drizzle. My salmon was buttery perfection, my broccoli caramelized, my fries as limp as zoodles. Such was not the case with the cottage fries I carefully boiled till soft for another meal, later crisping them in a skillet. Those little rounds were things of beauty, as was the accompanying sirloin steak, blushing pink from all the loving attention. Which brings us to the aforementioned nasi goreng and its comparatively frightening slate of 16 ingredients. Scanning the recipe, I got exhausted just reading the verbs (e.g., fluff, trim, scrub, peel, trim again, coarsely chop, scramble), but eventually achieved a flavorful pile of the most labor-intensive fried rice I’d ever attempted, which is something.

PURPLE CARROT

Slogan: Meals that are good for you, good for the planet

Price per serving: $9.99-$11.99

Info: purplecarrot.com

The pitch: This Boston-based service launched in 2014 offering meals for vegetarians and those interested in dipping a toe into the vegan butter. Recipes were originally created by food guru Mark Bittman, author of “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian,” who was briefly on staff. In addition to a selection of eight or so dinners each week, Purple Carrot also offers breakfasts (beet pancakes, matcha oatmeal), lunches (grilled cheese and fig sandwiches) and plant-based snacks.

The verdict: If there’s anyone out there with a knee-jerk prejudice against veggie entrees (besides me, I mean), prepare yourself to be — well, if not amazed, then pleasantly impressed by Purple Carrot’s creative selection of entrees, all of which I found both tasty and fortifying. The surprising thing about a dish of Japanese gnocchi — other than there actually being such a thing as Japanese gnocchi — was the complexity of flavor one can create from a smoky blend of nori spice and a sauce of tomato-flavored vegan butter tarted up with white miso. I usually have an instant aversion as well to anyone with the temerity to roast thick slices of cauliflower and call them “steaks,” and I’ll bet that whoever is behind PC’s version, they’ve dealt with such skeptics in the past. Though nothing to grab the Worcestershire over, their tahini cauliflower, uh, steaks with red lentil skordalia and pan-roasted green beans was another hit, the purée of potatoes and red lentils offering a soft bed for the paprika-doused vegetables. Soy-free Vegenaise instead of mayo was a bridge too far for me with the last dish, a veggie bowl of sweet potatoes rolled in red chili paste and accompanied by midnight grains. Yeah, I was confused, too. Then again, how else would you describe a side dish of black rice, black quinoa and black lentils?

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