There are apple trees here and there in Southeast Alaska but when we talk to a fellow Juneau resident, most (except old timers) are surprised to find out we have apple trees in our yard. If they saw how small our yard is, they’d be really surprised…but I digress.
Some years ago, we planted a couple of Goodland apple trees in the back corner of our front yard. I know – we’d never heard of that variety either but the tag said they were hardy and we needed something in that corner so we decided to go for it. You have to have two so they can pollinate each other so we loaded a pair of saplings in the truck and took them home.
Fast forward ten or so years and they are both about ten feet tall and sprout the most beautiful flowers in the spring.
However, the spruce tree in the neighbor’s yard has been shielding them so they haven’t produced much fruit. The first year we saw actual fruit, they didn’t get very big and didn’t ripen. The next year they were oddly deformed and had black spots and checking with our professional apple growing friends in Washington confirmed they had a fungus infection. We picked the fruit and cleaned up all the leaves and debris around the trees in the fall in hopes of controlling the fungus.
The next year saw some fruit but that year’s blight was of a furry kind. I was just about to jump into bed when I saw the trees shaking. I ran to the window and hollered. Hubby jumped out of bed, grabbed his bathrobe and big flashlight (yep – a Maglite 3 D Cell is his weapon of choice) and ran out the door to chase off the marauding black bear who decided our trees were his buffet.
Each subsequent year has seen some fruit but the location has gotten too shady with all the trees in the neighbors’ yards so when we came across some apple trees at Costco, I had to buy one to try in our sunnier backyard. Hubs quickly agreed when he saw it was three varieties grafted onto one tree – Lodi, Zestar, and our favorite, Honeycrisp. By grafting them, the tree is self-pollinating and the varieties ripen at different times.
We’ve had the tree in our backyard for about 6-8 years now and it’s about 12-15 feet high. Since he retired, hubby has taken command of the backyard – the “producing” side of the house vs the “pretty” side where I have all flowers and ornamentals. And he takes the apple tree care quite seriously, giving me regular morning reports on its progress over morning coffee.
One year, he saw the tree shaking and was concerned a small bear was in the yard – even tho they would have to climb a fence or navigate one small opening to get there. Running out into the yard, he discovered a porcupine attempting to climb the tree. He got a length of old 2×4 and managed to persuade the porky to move along with a lot of prodding, from a distance! He chased that waddling porky all the way around the house, thru the pretty side and out of our yard. And then we waited for him to return – porkies are persistent and will chew a tree down to nothing given half a chance. We hoped that if he did come back, he’d stop at the Goodland apple trees – figuring they are now the sacrificial apples for bears and other pests. Fortunately, we’ve not seen him or a bear in the apple trees some years.
The backyard tree kept growing with a little judicious pruning. The Zestar graft is still there but doesn’t do much – I think the graft is failing – but each year the other two have teased us with a few fruits.
A couple years ago, we ate some small apples late in the year but last year, it was so cold and rainy all summer, nothing ripened. We left town in the fall without picking them and returned to find them hanging from the naked branches, frozen. They looked like Christmas ornaments.
This year we worried from the get go. It was still quite cold into May when we are typically planting annuals and seeing things green up. The winter had been harsh – single digit temps with no snow cover meant the ground had frozen deeper than normal and we lost several perennials. The lawn looked terrible and it seemed like it was forever before things finally leafed out. Ever the pessimist, hubby’s reports on the garden were invariably gloom and doom.
And then it happened – the second warmest summer in history. One could even call the days hot and in our backyard, it certainly was. It collects the afternoon and evening sun and reflects it back to the plants. The apple tree took off and the daily reports were of the number of blossoms it held. All summer we watched as the blossoms turned into fruit – way more than we had ever had before.
And in late August, he couldn’t stand the temptation any longer and started picking some of the Lodi.
They are the first to ripen and resemble a yellow transparent – great for applesauce, apple butter or similar. Those first few were still a bit on the tart crunchy side and we only had a few here and there. We didn’t touch the Honeycrisps but they slowly colored, giving me a lovely view out the window with morning coffee.
The fall rains came and it absolutely poured several days in a row. This is normal for September and we wondered if we would actually get fully ripe apples. When we got a unusual reprieve and the sun came out, we found several Lodi on the ground. That was it – we had to pick them. So we had our own Apple Fest.
We picked the Lodi, marveling at the ones that “looked almost like real apples” and a group that was so large we had put a support under the branch for fear it would break under the weight.
All in all, we picked a large overflowing bowl full of the Lodi, checked the Honeys and left them alone.
The rest of our day was consumed with processing.
I made Country Apple Fritter Bread in mini pans so hubs could take some on his fishing trip the next day and we could share with my parents. The Instant Pot was key for making up a quick applesauce. I asked if we should make chunky or smooth – turns out with the Lodi, smooth was pretty much what we got but it tasted awesome. I also tried my hand at apple butter, again in the Instant Pot. One thing to note is that you must simmer it uncovered after the apples are cooked to thicken it to “butter” consistency. At this point, you will wish you had a screen lid of some kind as that hot sticky apple stuff bubbles hard enough to fly out of the pot! It was easy to forgive the mess when I jarred up seven half pints of cinnamon appley goodness.
And now we wait and watch the Honeycrisps, hoping they will ripen in this last stretch of sun….
Our final meal is the one I picked out just for me. I absolutely love gnocchi so the Brown Butter Gnocchi with Mushrooms and Chard were my first choice for our box.
This was probably the fastest dish to make and once again, I was in charge. I’m using that as my excuse for not taking more pictures…please forgive me. I put water on to boil for the gnocchi, then chopped chard and garlic, sliced the shallot and quartered mushrooms. As luck would have it, the farmers market had fresh shitakes that week so I added some of those to the mushrooms included in the kit.
The mushrooms are sauted, first alone and. then with the thyme springs. Then you add the butter and brown it, remove the thyme and saute the rest of the veggies, adding the chard leaves at the end.
The gnocchi cooks quickly and I put hubby in charge of skimming them out when they floated to the top, and putting them in a colander. Then you stir them into the pan with the veggies and add some pasta water, stirring and adding more of the pasta water until it coated the gnocchi in sauce. I ultimately added more pasta water than they called for as I wanted to be sure the dish wasn’t too dry.
Plating was simple – put on a dish and garnish with Parmesan cheese. I had some Parmesan in the fridge so I put that out so it could be added if desired. Did I mention how much we love cheese?
The serving size they sent for two people was a quarter pound of fresh gnocchi. I honestly could not get through this meal. Gnocchi are very solid bits of pasta and I find I can’t eat much of them. But it was a good preparation, super fast and reminded me to put more chard in our pasta dishes next year when I’m staring at the bumper crop from our garden.
This was the end of our meal kit box so we discussed what we liked and didn’t like. We don’t mind grocery shopping and meal planning, in fact we enjoy it, so having that done for us was not really a big deal. However, I could certainly see how busy people or those who don’t really like to cook might enjoy it. There was the opportunity to try some new things like the farro or the fennel spice so that was good. Cost wise, this was about $20 per meal or $10 per person each night. That’s not too bad and in fact is reasonable enough that we might be sending a trial to some busy folks for the holidays. If you don’t have a full collection of spices like we do, it makes it even more affordable since you don’t have to buy a full jar of something just to use a teaspoon of it. The meals seemed pretty healthy, the fat to calorie ratio was good, but I didn’t use salt every time they said to because we don’t eat much salt.
The real question is whether we would do it again? If it was available in Alaska, I think we might try it but maybe only every other week or something. But I have to say that it’s still worth considering when we are down in the lower 48 housesitting since we could vary our meals without having to invest in a bunch of spices – well that and since it will be winter and there will be no farmer’s markets to tempt us.
Tonight we dove into the Blue Apron kits for the things to make Ginger Scallion Meatballs and Rice with Bok Choy and Marinated Radishes. Hubby loves meatballs and I love rice and anything Asian inspired so this meal was an easy choice for us.
He loves to cook so he took care of most of the meal prep, grabbing the dish with all the kit ingredients and finding the ones for this meal and setting to work. Did I mention that these are “30-minute meals”? I’d say that’s about a true estimate. Unfortunately, he was so quick, I didn’t get beginning pictures. But here’s the recipe for future reference… Please excuse the glare.
First step is getting the rice on to cook followed by chopping veggies. We had bought some watermelon radishes at the farmer’s market so he added some of those in with the three that came in the kit. The radishes are marinated with vinegar while you cook the rest of the meal. Have you ever marinated radishes? They give off an interesting aroma but trust me, they taste great.
Then you make meatballs with the ground beef and breadcrumbs, adding in ginger and the whites of the scallions. It says to make 10-12 meatballs but he thought those were a bit big so we ended up with a bit more than that.
You brown the meatballs, then add bok choy, vinegar, water and a packet labeled “sushi sauce” to the pan, cooking til the bok choy is wilted and the meatballs are done.
He wasn’t going to plate the dish but said I could do it so there was a picture for you – pretty easy with just the rice topped with the meatballs and bok choy mixture, then the marinated radishes and scallion tops for garnish.
I really liked this dish – it was simple, light and the marinated radishes reminded me of when we make them for banh mi sandwiches. And since it was meatballs, it was a universal hit. Again, hubby felt like it needed a small salad on the side, but I was full without that….and no leftovers this time.
Full disclaimer – we are experienced home cooks and definitely qualify for foodie status. So why would we consider a meal kit delivery service? Well, we’d seen commercials and watched some friends try them via Facebook and the only thing I could think is when we are housesitting, it might vary our meals a little more without having to buy a bunch of ingredients we would never use again. But this would only work when we were at a sit long enough and frankly, part of sitting is seeking out local foods and shopping the local markets so we would only want to get a few meals. As luck would have it, we were able to try a meal kit service on two recent sits, courtesy of our awesome homeowners.
On the first sit, the homeowner said they started Blue Apron as they were tired of cooking and the decision making that goes with it. They thought because there were no leftovers and they only got what they needed for that meal, it saved them money in the long run. A recent article about a study done by Dr. Oz and his team supports this. They had an extra meal they wouldn’t use before they left and asked us to eat it so it didn’t go bad. How thoughtful! As it turned out, it was an Alaska rockfish recipe with a kale side – being from Alaska, it was amusing to see the rockfish and kale isn’t Cabana Boy’s favorite but we made it, it was tasty and we really appreciated the trial run.
Then came the real trial at a house sit several weeks later. As we were in the area, we stopped by to visit with the homeowners. In showing us around, we saw boxes and freezer gel packs from Blue Apron in the garage, waiting to be sent back for recycling. I commented how we had been interested in the meal kit service and we’d been fortunate enough to try a meal at our last sit. In confirming details by email later, the homeowners said they wanted to buy us a week of Blue Apron to try while they were gone. So incredibly generous that at first I insisted it was too much but they really wanted to so we agreed and picked our meals from the list they sent us. They confirmed delivery would be the Friday afternoon after they left and we’d need to be home then or soon after to ensure it didn’t get too warm.
We moved into their house on a Wednesday and only purchased enough dinner stuff for a couple days. Friday came and FedEx showed up at the door in the afternoon as promised. The box they left was fairly compact. It readily identified what was inside which I’m not sure I liked. On one hand, you know to scoop it up and get it into the fridge. On the other hand, it advertises there’s a full box of food sitting on the porch just waiting for someone to snatch it. But if someone needs food that bad, I think they are welcome to it.
We immediately opened the box to see what we’d received – honestly, we’d forgotten what we ordered! There was an insulating liner inside the box and two big freezer gel packs. I think the food would have stayed plenty cold even if we hadn’t made it home til late that night – and we were having nice 70ish temperatures in Washington at the time.
There are three meals in each box and a recipe card with pictures and very detailed instructions for each meal is included. The nice thing is if you liked something, you can save the card and replicate it in the future since the ingredients are listed.
Each ingredient is labeled to make it easy to find what you need. In addition, each meal has a small brown bag labeled “Knick-Knacks” that holds all the small bits of things you’ll need for the meal so they don’t get lost in the shuffle. We sorted through everything and put it in a dish to keep it all together in the fridge. We got this idea from a bin used by the last homeowner for their meal kits. On one hand, everything is together and you can just pull the bin/dish out and grab what you need for that night’s meal but if I was doing it at home, I think I’d put my produce in the crisper drawer and my meat in the deli drawer. But I do think I’d try to keep it all a bit separate from the other things.
After popping it all in the fridge, we discussed when we might prepare the meals. This was tough for us as our plans had evolved – as they are wont to do. We had plans for that night’s meal and had family coming the next day so likely wouldn’t start then either. And we knew we’d be hitting the farmer’s market, something we love to do when housesitting, and there would be veggies and fruit from that to consider as well. We decided Sunday would be the day we’d begin and we’d cook through all three in a row rather than interspersing them with other meals. If you had this box coming weekly, I think you’d likely become more adept at integrating it with meals you purchased locally. But with the dish of meal kits staring us in the face every time we opened the fridge, we knew that would be the star of our week’s meals.
Stay tuned for more posts as we cook through the box!
As promised in my last post, here’s a review of our first meal kit from Blue Apron, a generous gift from one of our homeowners. For the first meal we are making Fennel Spiced Pork Chops with Fig Compote.
We started by pulling out the recipe card for the pork chops and read through it. The instructions are very detailed with every step laid out, all the ingredients listed, and pictures.
We grabbed the meal kit dish and found all the items we needed. Then we were cooking. I handled the pork chops and fig compote and hubby handled the side dish – farro with kale “salad”. There seems to be a lot of kale and other greens used in the kits, at least in the ones we had to choose from, so even though he’s not a big fan, we chose this kit, in large part because of the pork chops and knowing we like fennel.
The recipe was pretty straightforward. You start the farro first as it needs to cook for a bit. We’d never made farro before and it was interesting that it didn’t say how much water to boil it in so we just made sure the grains were well covered.
Next up, coat the chops with a spice mixture that was in a pouch in the Knick Knack bag, Fry quickly (note that you provide the oil for cooking), remove to a plate and keep warm. Honestly, I didn’t think the amount of time they allow for cooking the chops – 3 to 4 minutes a side – was sufficient for the center cut thicker chops so I gave them an extra minute or two and used tongs to hold them to brown the edges too.
Making the compote with included figs, vinegar, and sugar was pretty easy – just chopping the figs and letting everything simmer until a bit thick.
Then you add the kale to the pan you cooked the chops in and cook til wilted, then add some water to finish cooking and loosen the brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Here’s where I took some liberty – rather than adding water, we added white wine because….well….we had some and that’s how we roll.
You finish up by stirring the kale into the farro and adding some creme fraiche, tarragon and vinegar into the farro. Then you plate and serve. I really did plate it rather than just having serving it family style, just so we could have the complete experience and so I could take this picture for you.
We really did enjoy this meal. I would likely never have used the spice combo they came up with. I’m sure I have the ingredients at home so I will try it again. As I said, we’ve never had farro and while I liked it because I like hearty grains like barley and such, hubby was not a big fan so I likely won’t go out of my way to make it again. It also didn’t really seem like a salad – more like a side dish. Not a big deal for some but we are used to having some sort of salad or a straight vegetable side with our meals so it was different. The fig compote was a big hit. I make these kinds of things a lot – some fruit, sugar and vinegar and you’re good to go – but figs in Alaska are very seasonal and expensive so this was a treat. And it wasn’t unreasonable in the calorie and fat counts.
Oh yes….there were no leftovers. Good that it’s portion controlled….bad if you want something for lunch the next day as we usually did when we were working full time.
Next up – an Asian styled meatball dish!
I have a published article! So exciting!
I am actually a published writer if you count the innumerable articles, blogs, and booklets I wrote for the State of Alaska. And of course I do a little doodling on this blog. But now I have an article published in a magazine. Ok…it’s an online magazine and no money changed hands but those are my words and pictures out there.
If you want to check it out, here is the link…