As the new edition of SFR's annual Restaurant Guide hits the streets this week, we're celebrating the best of Santa Fe's fine-dining culture, along with highlighting many of our city's fine feasts that come without the frills. But, as we know, too much time in restaurants can have a detrimental effect—not just on the household bottom line, but on health and happiness too.

So, this goes out to you, home cooks and those who aspire to be them.

We put our newsroom team on the case with a project aimed at bridging the gap between their actual cooking habits and the ones they'd like to have. For help, we turned to two pre-packaged, DIY meal-delivery services. After our cooks completed the meals with detailed instructions and ingredients selected by the service, we sent them out to try the whole thing again on their own.

They reported some miscalculations in cooking time, a handful of poor choices for replacement ingredients, too much and not enough seasoning, one smoke alarm and one questionable fish—but on the whole, they're unscathed. Maybe even a little inspired.

It Came in The Mail

Ten minutes in front of the computer and it was all set in motion. While the number of shipped meal-delivery services seems to be growing faster than we can keep up with, we chose two that seem popular and affordable.

The package from Hello Fresh was on deck first. We considered leaving it on the newspaper's back stoop in the bright sun to test the longevity of its ice packs and insulation, but ultimately got impatient and sorta creeped out by the idea of purposefully letting our meat get tainted. We reached for the box cutter. Ingredients to prepare each of three meals come in their own separate bags and inside the bags are tiny packages—a half ounce of honey, two tablespoons of ketchup. Meats are in a segregated compartment below. They felt just as cold to the touch as if they were coming out of the fridge at home.

Blue Apron's differentiating factor is that it performs more like the way you shop. If you have two meals with garlic, you get a head of it rather than two packages of peeled cloves. Its package was comparably priced, and both have special first-time deals. (For three meals, Hello Fresh was $44.94 after a $15 discount, and Blue Apron charged $24.94 after its $30-off promo.)  Both services provided each recipe on two-sided cardstock, including photos, and each make wine recommendations. They also both have apps if you need to incorporate technology into your dinner prep. Our cooks found the Hello Fresh app with its built-in timer to be particularly handy.

Meet the Chefs

In the interest of keeping things balanced, two male and two female cooks took up our challenge. In many ways, their levels of interest in cooking match with national trends. On average, about 58 percent of Americans spent an hour on food preparation and cleanup each day, according to surveys conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But when those numbers are divided by gender, women are still doing much of the cooking at home, with about 69 percent of women reporting time spent cooking and cleaning up after it, compared to about 45 percent of men.

Brianna is the only of our four home cooks who has worked in a professional kitchen, and she's also the only one in our newsroom who's cooking for a kid every night of the week as well. As our web guru, she delighted in researching the delivery services and was the mastermind of the structure of our experiment.
Anson stays up late making art and likes to keep the kitchen part of his life super simple. His favorite anytime meal is breakfast burritos, and he eats out about six times per week.

Sue's brownies have helped us get through deadline day more than once. Her freezer is  stocked with game meat, and she and her husband Mark eat dinner together at home most nights.

Matt is pretty close to being a full-time vegetarian. He occasionally indulges in a good piece of fish and isn't opposed to something smothered with cheese from time to time. He's interested in upping his kitchen game, and has tried other meal-prep services before.

The Meals

Honey-glazed pork tenderloin

Hello Fresh
Hello Fresh | Brianna

Tasks: Roast sweet potatoes and green beans, sear and roast tenderloin, make sauce
Pro: The directions were straightforward and the preparation was simple.
Con: There is not much going on in the way of seasoning. The meat and vegetables were only seasoned with salt and pepper, and only the sauce got the thyme.
DIY: The process is pretty straightforward, so it was easy to replicate. However, the lack of ingredient measurements meant that my sauce came out way too salty from the boullion. I cooked a full tenderloin, which took longer to roast, but was much juicier. Plus I seasoned the whole thing with herbs and garlic, so the meat was flavored much better.
Bottom line: Most of the value is really in the time saved from meal planning and shopping. This is one that I could recreate better and much cheaper at home.

Sweet and spicy beef

Blue Apron
Blue Apron | Brianna

Tasks: Make a sauce using other sauces, cook beef and pasta, then vegetables
Pro: The sauce was really good! I was a bit skeptical of how well they would handle an Asian meal, but the flavors were right on.
Con: The meat was all mushed together, and when you tried to separate the pieces, the meat was kinda breaking down into nasty little chunks.
DIY: I'm not sure that you could find a definitive answer on what their "tonkatsu sauce" really is. I also didn't find the exact noodles, but I did really like the ones I used. Then, I made a critical error with one of the veggies. Everything else turned out great, but the broccoli rabe was so bitter that it made most of the dish inedible.
Bottom line: This recipe made a mess in my kitchen. There were lots of dishes used, the gross meat paper towels, cornstarch was everywhere, and oil splattered all over from frying the meat. I'll definitely make this again though, and this time I'll use plain broccoli and mushrooms.

Juicy Lucy burger with Tomato onion jam

Hello Fresh
Hello Fresh | Anson

Tasks: Heat "jam" in a skillet, make salad dressing in a bowl, stuff burgers with cheese and fry them
Pro: The beef tasted quality. It was good, but not as good as it looked in the picture.
Con:  It took forever to peel the garlic and make the jam. The taste of the balsamic vinegar overwhelmed the entire dish. There wasn't really enough meat to form around the cheese.
DIY: I added mushrooms and red chile to the burger sauce and didn't use the vinegar on the burger, but just on the salad. The meat I chose wasn't as tasty as what came in the mail, which surprised me.
Bottom line: I would buy a burger from a restaurant to avoid the inconvenience of cooking and the shipping cost and waste of the packaging.

Roasted Chicken

Blue Apron
Blue Apron | Anson

Tasks: Roast a chicken, make mashed potatoes, cook carrots and compose a sauce
Pro: The chicken was great. The thyme-lemon sauce with garlic really went well with everything, and the goat cheese in the mashed potatoes was something different that was very tasty.
Con: The directions for the cooking time on the potatoes were too short, so I struggled really hard mashing them. I didn't have a vegetable peeler, so I had to peel the carrots with a knife.
DIY: I ended up burning the carrots  and then my house got all smoky and the fire alarm went off and I opened the door to vent it and a whole bunch of flies came in and so for the rest of the night I was just murdering flies.
Bottom Line: It was good quality and everything, but it created a lot of waste and was time-consuming. To me this all just seemed way over-the-top for just a little bit of flavor.

Spiced Dijon salmon

Hello Fresh
Hello Fresh | Sue

Tasks: Prepare couscous, pan-fry salmon with mystery Turkish spice blend, make a salad and dressing
Pro: It introduced me to foods I usually would not make.
Con: The proportions were how you should eat, not how we eat. We like a lot of protein. We could not, and did not want to eat all the couscous. And the salmon was a touch past its prime.
DIY: I was happier to pick out my fish and cook it the same day. Since we did not know what spices were in the secret ingredient packet, we used tried and true Paul Prudhomme Magic Salmon Seasoning.
Bottom line: I was glad to have made and tried a different recipe for salmon, but I like how we usually make it. And I thought that the food was little bland despite the Dijon and the Turkish spice. For a Santa Fean taste, we like our food to sing a little.

Creamy polenta and mushrooms

Blue Apron
Blue Apron | Matt

Tasks: Soft boil an egg, cook polenta, fry vegetables and make a sauce
Pro: The polenta was definitely creamy. The crispy sage leaves were a great touch for texture and the mushrooms stayed slightly crisp.
Con: I was religious about my soft-boiled egg timing and method. It worked for one egg and not the other. Good egg had a springy white and runny, just-past-over-easy consistency to the yolk. Bad egg was almost impossible to peel, had some sort of air bubble in the white and turned into a mess.
DIY: The only trick was replicating the polenta seasoning packet, because Blue Apron lets you know what's in there, just not how much. So at that point it becomes a "season-to-taste" scenario.  I had the benefit of knowing a little more about how to soft boil an egg. I could also back off on the balsamic vinegar because I knew it was a tad strong last time.
Bottom line: The meal was healthy and filling and was a good value when prepared on my own. With a little planning, it would be a cinch.

The Verdict

"Doing it made me realize I can add this into my repertoire pretty easily and swap out the veggies—but not that broccoli rabe ever again. It did give me some insight. I would still look at the recipes even if I don't want to order the food that week, just to get some ideas. You get stuck in a rut with the same things, and sometimes that will spark the creativity to say, 'I can do that, I have all those things at home.' I just wish they had a dishwasher delivery with it."  -Brianna

"It's not practical for me to do that in my lifestyle, though I thought it was. It would be economical if I could get the meals to last, to cook one day and eat it too the next day, but it was just not enough food. I eat more." Anson

"This way of cooking has you looking forward to dinner. Everything is right there for you. No decisions about anything. You know what you're having and that is kind of zen, especially after a hard day at work." -Sue

"What I liked about this meal was it gave me the confidence to try three things on my own: the polenta, the soft-boiled egg and and the crispy sage. I think that's one of the big benefits of meal services; even when you're not cooking out of their box, you learn new techniques and can more easily see how a meal comes together and what different chefs use to balance their plates."  -Matt

Pro Tips

"Don't be afraid to use your instincts to embellish the simple flavor profiles." -Brianna

"Don't drink tequila when you make burgers." -Anson

"Be mindful of the cook time. Keep an eye on things so you don't cook them
too long."  -Sue

"It pays to read the instructions all the way through and take a moment to consider the pots, pans and utensils you'll need; whether you'll have to wash or rinse them between uses." -Matt

Best Quotes

“My kiddo said our version of the recipe was 1000 percent better-tasting.”Brianna

“My house reeks still of all these meals. I’m so sick of it.”Anson

“That was the smallest lemon I ever saw.”Sue

“I was pretty excited about the soft-boiled egg, but it turned out to be
tedious.”
Matt