Hello Fresh

“Break out of your food rut! Let Hellofresh bring the excitement back to your dinner table!” – Hello Fresh website

This is not a regular food review but is in fact an analysis of a modern trend compromising the twin objectives of increasing convenience while enhancing quality, avoiding waste and tantalising the tastebuds. It’s a trick involving subscription, weekly delivery of the carefully weighed and packaged ingredients required to make defined recipes provided on cards complete with colour photographs in a foolproof assembly job, all for around £4.90 a meal. Whether that represents good value I’ll leave you to decide, though chances are that if you were cooking with fresh ingredients chances are some would be reutilised in several dishes over the week.

This is now a market packed with competitors, one of which is called Hello Fresh. I only sampled Hello Fresh because a busy friend who  subscribes to the service named me on the promotion which offered three days for free, a sprat to catch a mackerel as my grandmother would have called it. I chose to pay £9 to upgrade to five days, all the better to provide a balanced sample of recipes to review. After all, the recipes change from week to week and build into a portfolio that presumably repeats eventually but not sufficiently often for palates to become jaded.

This quote from the slick and glossy HL website illustrates how the concept is sold:

“I repeat the same 6-7 recipes over and over. The standard meat and veg combo just bores me, but thinking about a week’s worth of meals is time consuming. I need to inject more life into our cooking routine. I’d love to try new recipes and ingredients I wouldn’t normally pick up in the supermarket” – Jenny

Really?  If so that’s habit, not because there are no options – it’s not been true of me for more years than I can remember.  As a wise man once said, you are restricted only by your imagination.  Doubtless Hello Fresh would say their business is providing imagination, though I don’t think there’s anything the modern educated family could not do for themselves, had they half a mind so to do.

What is says is that people can’t be bothered to learn or develop their capabilities as a cook.   They don’t want to buy convenience dinners, but neither do they want to put the effort into acquiring knowledge or sourcing ingredients.  However, these are customers who are convinced they don’t want ingredients ready-chopped; to them it isn’t homemade unless they’ve done the prep themselves (pat on back time.)

Fair enough – not my place to judge, though I’d say it’s not all that difficult.  That is the point really: these are dishes for people who don’t want meat and two veg but are looking for vogueish global cuisine that appeals but is not difficult to buy, cook or serve, stress-free.

That the customers are not necessarily experienced cooks you can tell by the helpful hints provided on recipe cards.  For example: “The chicken is cooked when it is no longer pink in the middle” or “the potatoes are cooked when you can easily slip a knife through them.” Gosh, really? Surely even the most inexperienced cooks could work that out, though these are warnings akin to McDonalds printing on their coffee cups “Contents are HOT!

Maybe I’m wrong. We all know cooking is not widely taught on school curricula (food tech is not the same), so maybe the modern cook really can’t cook and hasn’t got time either to devise their own recipes, source ingredients, to know which techniques to use, or how to present or season or flavour the ingredients to best effect, or indeed to know how to repeat what they might have eaten on holiday or among the multiplicity of ethnic restaurants to be found on our High Streets, but no doubt Hello Fresh and the like fill a niche among those for whom time is money and who don’t care that the dishes are approximations to the cuisine of the countries involved cooked up in the Hello Fresh kitchens.

A couple of admissions before we begin.

  • I start at a distinct disadvantage here: I live alone so I could hog a dinner for two to myself or halve the recipes.  For the most part I did the latter, and therefore have a lot of leftover ingredients.  Yes I could have cooked the lot then eaten the leftovers the following day in some but not all dishes, though it’s not like cooking a batch to freeze.
  • Modestly I claim to be a somewhat more accomplished cook than these recipes demand (indeed, I almost never follow recipes to the letter or at all), and my store cupboard is rather more populated than most.  Consequently, I would have access to almost all the ingredients and be familiar with the techniques used, perhaps more than most.

Fact is that I cheated with some of these dishes, such as using homemade chicken stock in preference to the capsule of stock gel provided or the same ingredients already open in my fridge in preference to the mini pre-wrapped packages thoughtfully provided.  Doubtless many ingredients are selected to mix-and-match according to the requirements of any one recipe.

However I did use all the fresh ingredients, which came beautifully packaged with ice packs and wadding, and I did not add to the recipes in any way – which is totally out of character, folks.  True, you do have to root through the box to find the correct paper back, tough I’m sure those in the know understand the colour-coding system on the sticky labels and jump straight to the right bag.

Two words of caution though: they do assume you already have the likes of salt, pepper, cooking oil etc – oh, and water – but not milk, which comes in a dainty container for one recipe; and beware that some dishes, not necessarily in the correct order, will tell you to serve dishes within two days for fear fresh ingredients will go off (eg. Bean sprouts.)  This is easy to miss!

On the same lines, I’d advise freezing meat required at the end of the week, then defrost as required.

One more thing: the delivery was via Yodel, and contrary to some experiences of Yodel was bang on time in the 2-hour slot quoted.

So let’s get to it.  Here’s how the week went:

Day one was the simplest of the simple: a vaguely Greek-sounding Butterflied Chicken with Feta, Leek and Minted Potatoes (capitalisations all their own.)  It did indeed take the 30 minutes quoted and was very simple to achieve, but assumed I possess a grill.  As an Aga-user I can do an approximation that works just fine while not actually grilling.

The feta (which as they helpfully point out is salty, and therefore not to overdo the seasoning, just in case you didn’t know) browns and melts into the leek mix atop the chicken breast (butterflied by instructions, in case you didn’t know how.)  The dish looked and tasted fine, so one up to Hello Fresh.

Day two saw an apparently more involved recipe, dipping a toe into Africa with Moroccan Spiced Sausage Stew with Fruity Bulgur Wheat.  Clearly not an authentic recipe, nor authentic Moroccan Merguez sausages.  Rather, this was a good old-fashioned British banger, which I was invited to take from its skin and manufacture into sausage balls.  Tell the truth, I couldn’t be arsed so instead cooked the sausage in the oven of my Aga then cut it up into chunks, which was every bit as good.  For the record, the Moroccans would go for couscous rather than bulgur wheat, but we’ll let that pass.

For all the fact that the ingredients tripled the previous day’s allocation, the dish was just as simple to prep and cook, and the recipe did note one handy hint with which I agreed: when toasting flaked almonds in a dry pan, “watch them like a hawk, they burn very easily!”  Almost as patronising but very true.  Another tasty dish which barely taxed the cook, even if I did have the entire meat allocation for two in one sitting (portion control was a bit wanting there.)

Day three saw us venturing into the mysterious east.  Not Clacton but Sri Lanka, for Sri Lankan Prawn Pilaf with Beetroot and Herb Slaw.  And I quote from the front of the recipe card:

“Sri Lanka – they call it the pearl of India – because it really is that beautiful.  The food is one of the main treasures and as an island – just like us – they love a dish with some tasty, fresh seafood.  Plus, we’ve added gorgeous, wonderful beetroot, because it’s in season so therefore at its most delicious!  Fusion!”

That would be known in the trade as marketing guff (and trust me, they are all just as flowery), but apparently the Sri Lankans do indeed eat beetroot, curries too – even if pilafs are more usually associated with the Middle East.  Once more, this was a simple to make, and the beetroot was raw but grated.  Small wonder the cook pictured in step 6’s photo was wearing plastic gloves (not included.)  the herb in question was flat leaf parsley, though there were two tiny pots of spice blend in which to cook your prawns and rice.

Another question to pose: the recipe requires zesting a lemon.  Do all Hello Fresh cooks possess a lemon zester, or would they extemporise with another implement?  Would they know what zesting means, even?  I don’t know, but I suspect a few might have had to google it!

It’s worth noting that the recipe requires a few minutes of stir-frying the rice, onion, garlic and courgette, then 10 minutes steaming.  Personally I would not steam basmati rice for 10 minutes, since serving slightly al dente and with each grain individually separated is critical – and it will continue to cook while you fluff it up and take it to the table for service.   I cooked the pilaf for 8 minutes plus steaming time for the prawns and serving, which proved ample.

As for the raw tiger prawns, that can be a fine art for the uninitiated: yes, they need to be cooked through, but neither do they need overcooking or you’ll be eating shoe leather, but a gentle steaming here works fine.

Day four is marked by something a touch closer to home entitled Honey Mustard Chicken with Buttery Veggies and Mash, the novelty here being use of poached radishes among the veggies.  Well, novelty to those used to radishes raw in salads at any rate, but otherwise nothing too radical or daring.

Yes, this is our second taste of chicken this week, which is fine if you are into chicken.  This time it’s the thighs, or as the French would say it des cuisses.  In keeping with the week’s cooking, this is a very simple dish to cook and introduces the popular technique of pan-steaming of vegetables (steam-sauté as I prefer to call it.)

Day five‘s specialty, which I must admit I have yet to eat by virtue of having been into hospital for ankle surgery, is “Hoisin Pork with Noodles, Peppers and Beansprouts.”  This is essentially chow mein made with strips of pork loin cooked though not marinaded in soy and hoisin sauces.  The noodles provided are dried rather foil-packed fresh but the whole will look very familiar to families whose weekly recipes almost invariably include a stir-fry.

Would I use Hello Fresh again?  Well, given my love of experimental cooking and use of best local seasonal ingredients as much as those far flung products now available, I’d be more inclined to alchemy than sticking to the recipes, but that’s me.  The ingredients are essentially the same stock as commoditised supermarket delivery ingredients, though if I had the time and energy I’d always prefer to choose my own meat and produce.

That apart, I’m happy to report that the dishes themselves are pretty good, such that I have no particular criticism.  The instructions were accurate, they worked and the finished dish looked like the photographs, not something you can always claim.  I could be nasty and say this is appealing to the lowest middle class common denominator food, but let’s give them a bit of credit.

The biggest problem I have with the concept is the assumption that you will continue to subscribe unless you cancel.  When I discovered this, it was too late to cancel the next week’s delivery, so the only means at my disposal was to cancel the subscription altogether unless and until I choose to restart it.  Doing it this way riles me as a customer and makes me altogether less inclined to use the service at any point in future, so I invite Hello Fresh to find a means of flexible service which always requires the customer to click approval before further deliveries are sent.

The second aspect is sizing.  Portions are fine for 2 people, but then Hello Fresh is targeted largely primarily at couples; boxes can be expanded to “family size,” and quite possibly can accommodate veggies and coeliacs and other food fads (I didn’t check)…. but nothing about people living on their own, yet there are more of us now than at any time in the past.  Shopping for one is very difficult, so maybe this is an opportunity missed and a great market to tap into, wouldn’t you say?  As it is, I have enough ingredients from one week of HF to serve me several dinners through the following week as I recuperate from my operation at home.

Another opportunity missed came in the form of actually improving the education of less than capable cooks, or at least an option to provide instructions but without patronising the more experienced chefs.

OK, so not really my thing… but we are all different.  So I expect HF and competitors to continue doing well among DINKY (double income, no kids yet), GLAM (greying, leisured, affluent, married) and MUPPIE (middle aged urban professional) households, plus other segments the marketing people have sussed out.

PS.  Despite my having cancelled my subscription, they delivered regardless, and doubtless debited my card.  So now I have a fresh week of recipes to try:

Soy and Orange Glazed PorkSoy and Orange Glazed Pork

In Your Box

Soy and Orange Glazed Pork

with Mediterranean Veggies and Couscous

Zahtar SalmonZahtar Salmon

In Your Box

Zahtar Salmon

with Fragrant Rice and Spinach

Super Quick Creamy PastaSuper Quick Creamy Pasta

In Your Box

Super Quick Creamy Pasta

with Peas and Bacon

Eat first
Minty Sumac ChickenMinty Sumac Chicken

In Your Box

Minty Sumac Chicken

with Roasted Veggies and Cucumber Yoghurt

Ksar Char-Bagh Moroccan Beef BurgersKsar Char-Bagh Moroccan Beef Burgers

In Your Box

Ksar Char-Bagh Moroccan Beef Burgers

Eat firstSpicy

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