Cook Unity! A Five-Week Review of Meals

A second food service review:  PS, these weeks are NOT consecutive.  No way.

Mind you, these reviews are of services I’d not normally pay attention to, but running a food blog, I felt it was important to try a couple out.  Plus, I was just a bit curious.  What would I want, if I can’t get out to shop?  What would I want if I can’t cook (physically, or just supremely busy?)   And, depending on the deal each of these services runs at a time, you can get the initial meals at a steep discount, occasionally even free.

Cook Unity’s scheme is to send out meals that are already put together, and the only thing left to do is cook them.  Consider them upscale TV dinners.  The recipes are from genuine chefs, two or three of whom I have vaguely heard of.   If you don’t filter in favor of certain dietary plans or restrictions, there are over a hundred choices each week.  If you favor, say, vegan, the site will keep this as your recommended, should you forget to order or skip.  (Unlike Hello Fresh, which has many vegetarian but few if any vegan meals, Cook Unity has several vegan meals to choose from.)  You can also choose from other categories not  specifically available on Hello Fresh (keto, paleo, etc.)

You can order anything on the menu for a given week, not necessarily in a plan or not.  You have to order a minimum of four meals (each of which serves ONE person).  Hello Fresh aimed to serve two people with each meal, just to refreshen our memories.  Of course, you can order 2, 3, 4 or more meals of the same thing, depending on family size / needs.

You can’t order, or decline ordering, as far out as you can with Hello Fresh.  But you do have about three weeks to decide.

The meats aren’t going to be pastured here.  (I still want to review a  service that uses only pastured meats.)  I’m ordering at least two meals a week that are vegetarian (and apparently mostly vegan). I am also focusing largely on low carb, sometimes Paleo foods, and I want at least one seafood dish a week.

:Week One:

Ode to the Chicken under a Brick – Marc Forgione.  Any recipe that respects the dark meat of a chicken NEEDS to be sampled, IMHO.  (Forgione is the chef and co-owner of  Marc Forgione Restaurant, in Manhattan, NYC, New York.  He won the title of Next Iron Chef, 2010 – Food Network).  

This was good.  Was it great?  No.  But the chicken was tender and tasty.  The broccolini was overcooked, but I am always fine with carrots being overcooked. The potatoes worked.  But overall, the dish didn’t sing the way I’d hoped.  I think this dish could have been supplemented with something more, not sure what.  I think the seasonings needed a bit more, ahem, zing.  But I get it… they don’t want to offend any customers with overly-spiced foods.

I do give them plus marks for daring to use the dark meat from a chicken.  And if I ever get to the source restaurant, I am likely to order this fresh-up.

Blackened Catfish with Citrus Pico de Gallo – Tony Perez.  This one sounds like South US meets Tex Mex, but I’ll know more, later.  Gluten-free and Paleo, this comes with cauliflower rice.  (Perez first shows up as a baseball player under a Google search, but this particular Perez is the executive chef at River Spirit Casino. Tulsa, Oklahoma.)

Simply remove the plastic film atop, remove the salsa, and heat for 10-15 minutes, eat and enjoy.  As with all the recipes involving cooking, there is also a microwave instruction set.  No reason to microwave, if an oven is to hand, however.  This was the second meal I tried from them.

The salsa / pico de gallo was wimpy and bland, I threw it out.  The catfish was tender and good, and I welcome the tasty crunch of the riced cauliflower.  I’d have welcomed a bit more heat with this dish, and a small salad to the side would be nice.

Yubu Japchae – Esther Choi.   Korean, gluten-free, and vegan.  I love a meat-based japchae, so I figured I’d test drive a vegan one, now.  (Choi is the owner/chef of Mokbar, a restaurant in Chelsea Market, Manhattan, NYC, New York.  Focus is Korean.) 

This dish comes with straightforward directions.  There are instructions for the oven, and for the microwave – as I will, throughout, I went with the oven.  I tried this dish first the evening the week’s package arrived.  Heat and bake at 350 F for 15-20 minutes, pour the room temperature sauce over, and enjoy.  I went with 18 minutes of baking time.  The sauce amounted to  about 2 scant tablespoonsful.  I might have wanted more sauce, but but as it turns out, I’m happy it was just this amount…

WHAT is YUBU?  Good question. From Microsoft Bing:  it is “dried tofu skin, a staple of Chinese and Japanese cuisines. This somewhat buoyant, and rubbery ingredient naturally forms on top of soy milk, and simply put, it’s made of coagulated soy proteins”.   (I didn’t look this up, until my meal was in the oven.  At least it isn’t seitan…, which is always a faux and unwelcome pseudo-food to me.  Yubu didn’t come across as rubbery to me.  In fact, I want MORE Yubu.)

The sauce ended up a bit too salty (and sweet), so I am glad there was a limited amount.  I really liked the crunchiness of the bell peppers here.  I rate this 3.5 out of 5, mostly due to the sauce, which I would eliminate next time should I order this again.  The actual dish, however, was great, though not as good as the Pork Japchae I’ve made in the past.  I think I would have added more veggies, personally. This dish by itself was satiating as a single meal.  I would order again, but I’d ditch the sauce.  And add some Korean red pepper flakes.

MIcro Balancing Bowl – Tony Perez.  Another vegan recipe.

cook unity, review, salad, balancing bowl

It comes with brown rice, avocado, various veggies, kidney beans, and so forth.   This recipe is served cold from the fridge, no cooking needed.  It can be dressed with a tahini salad dressing, which alas is advertised as “sweet”.  But I won’t have to use more than I want….

The rice seemed more white than brown, but the veggies were tasty, as was the tahini salad dressing, which was not nearly as sweet as advertised online – thankfully!  I really liked the kidney beans and most of the veggies.  Even the corn was fine.  I really do wish there had been twice as much dressing, however.

:Week Two:

Kale Efo Riro and Black Eyed Pea Ndambe Stew Over Liberian Red RIce – Pierre Thiam.  This is gluten-free and vegan, and hails from Africa.  (Thiam hails from Senegal, and is eager to introduce west African cuisine to America.  He is owner / Executive chef of restaurants in Nigeria, Senegal and the casual dining place, Terenga, in New York City.)

Cook Unity, efo riro, review

I selected this to explore more African cuisine than I’ve been exposed to.  Seriously good, happily spiced, and just the right amount of food for a decent and satiating meal.    Oh, the kale is not as bitter as some variants of this vegetable can be. And I am glad to taste the okra in here.  I’d order this again.

Salmon and Avocado Sauce, with Cucumber Salsa – Andres Mendes.  Gluten, dairy, and soy free, and definitely Paleo.  (Mendes works at Extra Virgin, a restaurant in NYC, but I (on my admittedly cursory look) could find out little more about him.)

I had this dish the morning after it was delivered (delivery was on the proper day, and the ice packs were fine) – the cucumber was older and a bit mushy (but still could be eaten).  This salad/salsa, however, was half the dish.  Which if it had been more crispy would have been wonderful.  Cucumber doesn’t travel well.  The avocado sauce is excellent, but loaded with cilantro (coriander leaves) for those who lack the ability to taste cilantro’s true nuances.  i used this mostly on the salmon.

The salmon itself was nicely seasoned.  I can see ordering this again.

Wild Mushroom Bibimbap – Esther Choi.  The base of this meal is millet, brown and black rice.  Not gluten-free, but definitely vegan.

cook unity, vegetarian bibimbap, mushrooms

This one was perfect!   Enjoyed every second of it, including the spicy sauce provided.  (Unlike the first week’s contribution from this chef, nothing was over-salted.)  YUM.  6 out of 5 stars!!!!

Grilled Hangar Steak with Asparagus and Mojo de Ajo –  Akhtar Nawab.  This one is low carb, but not gluten-free.  (He’s a “Kentucky bred chef of Indian heritage”, and since I’m Kentucky born, this rather appealed to me.  Which I didn’t know until after I’d ordered and eaten the below, so Kentucky had no influence on my dietary choice.  Apparently he melds Mexican and Indian influences together in his restaurants – he owns and is overall chef at a restaurant in NYC and in New Orleans and plans/planned to open up one in Nebraska in 2019, but with COVID fall out, and a lack of updating on the website – who knows?)

I would not have purchased a beef steak here, except one of the reviewers stated she/he could heat this up to medium rare.  It was already a bit past medium rare when I opened the box, but I soldiered on.    I realize there are pitfalls translating dishes from a chef’s vision to what can be sent out already cooked, to a bunch of subscribers.  There are things that simply won’t work.  I will note as positives, 1) the steak was extremely tender anyway, and tasty, and 2) they didn’t commit the mortal sin of over salting.  I would have liked a bit more kick to the Mojo de Ajo, but the service has to deal with their audience. Easier to add more yourself than to delete – but I’m more or less reviewing these things as received.

The asparagus was good, but since it is locally asparagus season here, (when I ate this dish) I can’t rate a pre-cooked asparagus stalk as high as a freshly cooked one from my region.  But I see these stalks as serviceable, and definitely better than I’ve had at some establishments.

:Week Three:

Panchit Bihon with Chinese Sausage – Jordan Andino  (And what it says about him, besides being a chef in New York City, and having online cooking tutorials:  “Blending Filipino and south eastern Asian flavors with French and Italian technique, Jordan’s food is not only inspired by his travels, but by his father’s tutelage and grandmother’s soulful cooking.”  I guess that presses all the right buttons for his regular clientele.  $35 per month, $210 for six months.  Each month he provides a recipe – but we don’t know what they are in advance.  No dice on that!)

cook unity, panchit bihon, review

This Filipino dish was quite good, I really enjoyed the morsels of Chinese sausage with the backdrop base of rice vermicelli and veggies.  Nicely seasoned, as well.  This one recommended a microwave re-heating, so I complied – first time I have microwaved any of these meals.  (I prefer not to microwave, but will do so if the recipe insists.)  However not good enough to pursue any teaching courses.

Sweet Potato Curry, with Laotian RIce – Marc Forgione.   Vegetarian.

cook unity, review, sweet potato, curry, rice, vegetarian

This vegetarian dish was rather impressive.  The veggies – bell pepper, onion, zucchini – were all cooked but still retained that tasty nutritive crunch.  This time, the curry sauce was an integral part of the rice – I appreciate this. Seasonings get a chance to cook in and meld.  If one stays the course with Cook Unity, this is a keeper.

Lamb Kebob with Turmeric Hummus – Akhtwar Nawab.

I do want to encourage Cook Unity to provide more and more dishes with lamb.  Hence I ordered two lamb meals this week.

Very disappointed.  The ground lamb that went into their kebob meat had an extremely fatty overtaste, and although the kebobs (2) were large and seasoned well, I could not finish this dish.   I fear for the moussaka dish, “created” by the same chef.  We shall see.  (Since it is in my fridge, we will HAVE to see.)  Note – I have eaten and prepared ground lamb myself before – you can find plenty of examples on this blog – but the Chef Unity contribution was – terrible.   I ended up saving the sweet potatoes – but most of the lamb went into the trash.  Turmeric hummus and the lightly pickled cucumbers were, however great.  But not good enough to order this ever again.    PS, hummus really should be more than a little something tossed into a one-two ounce container, like a regular sauce….

Lamb Moussaka with Eggplant and Cauliflower Bechamel Sauce – Akhtwar Nawab.

After the previous ground lamb dish invented by the previous chef, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this one was indeed very edible.  Not as great as I’d like a moussaka to be, but it was more than serviceable.  This one uses cauliflower instead of potatoes – and you can’t really tell the difference!  There is also coconut milk in the dish (no dairy), probably to help smooth out the cauliflower.  I’d do this one again, on an occasion.  Still doesn’t measure up to a true moussaka but not needing to avoid, either.   And the lamb wasn’t fatty….

Mushroom Crusted Chicken Thighs with Sheet Pan Maitakes, Potatoes, Bok Choy, and a Carrot-Lemongrass Sauce – James Grody.  He teaches cooking at Sur la Table, and has his own company, The Tailored Chef, where he works on creating menus for corporate and other clients.

I was very impressed – the chicken thigh was large and tender, and the mushroom coating was lovely.  Everything had a great flavor.  I think the only flaw was the over-cooked bok choy, but in a pre-prepared dish, such a thing is to be expected.  This recipe specifies oven cooking procedures, but notes that using a microwave is not recommended for this dish.  I’d order it again.

Mediterranean Chicken Thighs, with Sautéed Artichokes, Roasted Peppers, Tomatoes and Crispy Kale – Tony Perez.

This chicken thigh was significantly smaller than the previous chicken thigh.  Not bad, not great, but serviceable.  The artichoke bits were hard to find (but there were some available).  Ditto the roasted peppers.  There was plenty of kale and tomato.  The dressing was good.  Might, or might not, order again, though I really did like the taste of the thigh and the cilantro-heavy dressing.  The tomatoes are cherry tomatoes, which do retain a lot of intrinsic flavor over the hot-house ones that the larger varieties (don’t) have.  PS, they do include feta in this salad.  Oh, if i could, I’d order the dressing by itself!

Cauliflower Shepherd’s Gardener’s Pie – Tony Perez.   Vegan, and renamed “Gardener’s Pie” by yours truly, as no sheep are involved in this dish, and thankfully no faux cheese made with gut-destroying cashews….    They subbed with a Pork Longanisa dish, as perhaps they ran out of the pie?  I’m actually fine with substitutions if they do it if I only have the minimal required FOUR ordered dishes, but since I had these seven this week, they should just leave substituting OFF.

Pork Longanisa Pork and RIce – Jordan Andino.  An apparent substitution for the dish directly above.

I hadn’t had high hopes for the dish, but it turned out really, really good.  Even if the dish used scrambled egg instead of the sunny side up one depicted on the on-site photo.  Totally fine with that (especially since I hadn’t ordered the dish to begin with…)  The rice texture and taste were very good.  Apparently Longanisa is a Filipino sweet and barbequed sausage – I could definitely get behind this.  The spicy sauce that comes with this was outstanding, and gives me hope for further spiciness as any other orders or dishes go forward.  Dish would be even better with a spot of something green, but really – I was satiated when done.

:Week Four:

Bacon, Egg and Kimchi Bowl, with Farro and Arugula – Esther Choi.  Korean adaptation.  Breakfast with veggies! Right up my alley!  (Or, so I thought!)

cook unity, review, Korean, farro, egg, kimchi

It’s sort of okay, or perhaps a fair bit less than that.  A little too much salt, and the farro is too hard.  The arugula tastes rather like one of the lesser subspecies of kale.  The fried egg is fine – just thankful it isn’t one of those “trendy” burnt bottom eggs one sometimes sees nowadays.  As for the kimchi — couldn’t find it!  Don’t recommend you ordering this one, an utter waste of $13.50.

Split Pea with Falafel Bowl, with Golden Tahini, Black Rice, and Aleppo Slaw – Lena Elkousy.  A vegan dish.  I do have to surf through the ingredient lists on some of these dishes to make sure they aren’t using some sort of gut-wrenching cashew cheezoid product.

This was quite good, nearly excellent.  It needs a bit more sauce, however.  Sauces added on at this site tend to “need” to fit into a “standard sized” individual plastic tub.  A shame, as otherwise this recipe really deserves some serious kudos.  It was also extremely filling for one person (which is fine, I can always use leftovers!).  I would order this again.

LA Galbi Rice Bowl – Esther Choi.  Korean.

cook unity, Korean, review, galbi

This recipe was okay, the rice left something texturally to be desired, however.   At least it didn’t swarm with Choi’s typical signature salt.  It really didn’t feel authentic for galbi, however.

Braised Lamb Sabzi, with Cumin Seed Rice – Einot Admony. Yes, I ordered another lamb dish from here.  This lamb was part of the shoulder and not ground.  AND it was a different chef’s recipe.  Alas, cancelled and replaced with the dish below….

Braised Short Rib with Roasted Yucca – Anthony Nichols.  He’s a “private chef” in the New York (city), the Hamptons, Greenwich CT area, and has worked with corporate accounts.

cook unity, short rib, yucca

Have to say, when I first opened the dish, I thought the long whitish strips next to the hunk of meat were short rib bones….   No, that’s the yucca, and unfortunately, the yucca turned out to be… yuck.  The skinniest pieces were edible (but not very good), and the thicker ones were unyielding when I tried to bite through them.  The short rib hunk of meat was tasty, and I loved the sauce.  Although not depicted in the photo, the dish comes with a bunch of chives to sprinkle over after re-heating – which I forgot about until I’d already started eating this meal.  They were fresh, but they didn’t add anything to the dish other than they might have added some color to my photograph…  Overall, not impressed.

There were a few orange-colored bits of root vegetable (no, not carrots) that were tasty, but I can’t figure out what they were.  (Possibly a type of mild radish?)

Roasted Shrimp and Eggplant, with Mint Couscous and Harissa –  Ruben Garcia.

The combination of all the ingredients played well together, and the shrimp was fresh, not remotely rubbery, but tasty. I’d get this one again, certainly!   While I really didn’t taste much mint, and I would have liked to, this was still an excellent entry to this food service.

:Week Five:

Roasted Eggplant Parmesan with Garlicky Broccoli Rabe and Pepper

Have to say the dish presentation looked terrible, but being mailed in these cardboard trays doesn’t really do anything justice (photos on the website are all nicely plated, and probably just-made, rather than shipped).  That’s fine, but this came looking sadder than usual.

Have to say I did like the Eggplant Parm portion very much – good slices of eggplant, and no breading!  I loathe places that serve paper thin slices of eggplant with so much dredging in breading or batter that you cannot begin to taste the eggplant!  The unfortunate thing is that there is so little of this portion of the meal.  The other side of the divide in the container was the broccoli rabe and pepper – sufficient quantity, and rather average.

Butternut Black Bean Chile with Polenta and Avocado Butter – Emily Peck.  This meal is vegan.

A Tex-Mex entry, this one was very tasty and filling.  I’d do it again.  The quantity was sufficient, and I was satiated even with only 530 calories.

Seared Salmon with Yogurt Dill Sauce, Sautéed Squash and Zucchini – Chris Massiah.

OVERALL REVIEW:

Some features: 

Cook Unity provides a place to list your preferences, should you forget to order what you want in time.   That way when they send you something automatically, they won’t send you something you are allergic to.  (Or can’t stand, or that you find objectionable for whatever reason.)

Cooks Unity

The drop-down menu lets you choose among several “special diets”:  Keto, Paleo, Vegan, Vegetarian, Whole30.  Or, the No Restrictions that I chose.

Next up you are asked the types of foods you’d most love to eat, and you can see how I selected above.  They also added Beef, Chicken, Kid Friendly (not sure what that last nonsense is, as I grew up eating what the parents ate….), Plant Based (they mean vegan as plants aren’t just the base, but the whole thing), Super Foods, and Turkey as choices.

Foods one would like to avoid consists of an extensive list of items to choose from.  I am avoiding all three tree nuts I know I am now highly sensitive to, as well as hazelnuts – which I despise enough not to want to undergo any remote possibility of the gut-wrenching effects the others now have on me.  I added Beyond Burger and Velveeta due to their “foodoid” potentials, and palm sugar for a few important environmental reasons.

They then ask you some demographic info, which you can simply not answer as you choose.  In fact, you do not need answer any of this section, but if you do have food sensitivities or allergies, downright hatreds, or religious/other reasons, I’d fill in the pertinent sections.  Otherwise, be diligent in coming back often to select your menus for a given week!  Because I think they’ll send you whatever is at hand.(Or, just to skip.)

Not shown here, they then ask you what your goals are with regards to foods.   Pick up to two.  I chose Overall Wellness and Delicious yet Balanced.   This is also the place where you could note Diabetic, if needed.  Or leave this section blank.


Pros:

When super buys, or just not in the mood for whatever reason, you just pull off the outer plastic and cook in the oven.  You also have a microwave option (which I did not utilize except for the one time the dish said an oven was not appropriate).  There may be one or two things, usually sauces to be used at room temp/cold, that you take out prior to cooking.  I did get one salad that needed no further treatment but a fork.  In other words, in a busy life, these dishes may be useful, and they take that old “TV Dinner” I grew up with when the parents went out to dinner without us children, to a far higher level.

There is a variety of cooking styles and seasonings.  Probably to reflect most of the chefs and their cultural backgrounds (although I had never heard of any of these chefs before).  One of the things that got my to try this particular food service  was NOT the chefs – but the multicultural foodie potential.  I do think there’s an extreme at the moment in glorifying chefs – but it does balance out the attitude a generation back or so, where chefs as a creative or explanatory force were under-rated, minus Julia Child, of course.

I also admit I tried this one for the pre-prepared feature.  Hello Fresh was beginning to annoy me, having to make their recipes just the way they wanted to make them.  (I felt largely obligated as a reviewer to do just that – minus any ingredients that could rip my gut out, of course.)

Cons:

The essential problem with pre-cooked foods that are then shipped to you is that some of the foods will necessarily degrade.  There’s really no way around this, so accept it if you sign up for a service of this nature.  The corollary to this is that some of the foods will arrive over-cooked if you prefer more crunchy/more rare items. They do try, and there are some uncooked salads as well.

Some of the recipes are dialed down, seasoning-wise.  I figure many would consider this a positive, but for the rest of us, it should be noted.  Don’t be afraid to raid your spice cabinet for a few dishes,  I didn’t do so simply for the purposes of food review, but if I do keep this service on my back burner, I will certainly do so.  (After writing the above, I did end up with recipes which are fully seasoned, especially using the often-enclosed sauces or dressings.)   Not all, but enough.

Maybe I was doing it wrong (quite possible) but when I discovered that a vegetarian item I’d selected was really vegan and made with cashew “cheeze”, to which I am painfully (as in gut-wrenchingly) sensitive, when I went back in to the list of meals to delete that and add a different meal, the site deleted them all and I had to order everything else over again.  Annoying and this should be avoidable.  (I am not blaming them for my not reading the ingredient list prior to ordering, but for having a customer making a change for whatever reason was so entirely unnecessarily irritating.)

Costs:  Not sure if prices are location-dependent (shipping and all) but my meals cost $13.50 apiece.  This is not cost effective overall, but can be useful for those who for whatever reason can’t cook, or are too busy to cook.  Many (not all) of the meals will indeed cost more if ordered out at a restaurant – but cost-wise, best to cook your own food.  I will note that when they had to substitute a meal for something I HAD ordered, they didn’t charge me for that meal.  For which I won’t complain a second more about the above substitutions!

In comparison to Hello Fresh:  the cost at Hello Fresh was less per meal – but they packed two meals together in the same package (I am fine with that in the decreased wastage department), and you need to cook that yourself.  Also, for some of Hello Fresh’s dishes, they add in a surcharge due to certain ingredients, which elevates that meal considerably, pricewise.  Cook Unity doesn’t do that.

There are more recyclable items in the Cook Unity boxes than in the Hello Fresh contributions.  Here, the plastic film is of course not recyclable, nor are the bags housing the ice packs.  (THEORETICALLY the stuff inside current ice packs can go down the drain, and is labeled “non toxic”,  BUT is also labeled “Keep out of the reach of children” – okay, just WHICH is it???)

Will I check out a third food delivery service?   Not in any rush.  Maybe this spring or so.  Maybe.  If I do, i have my eye on one that supplies organics and / or pastured meats exclusively, and that sells both pre-made meals as well as meals you cook yourself; you can pick either plan.  I’m considering Sunbasket.

All in the service of this blog, of course!

About goatsandgreens

The foodie me: Low/no gluten, low sugars, lots of ethnic variety of foods. Seafood, offal, veggies. Farmers' markets. Cooking from scratch, and largely local. The "future" me: I've now moved to my new home in rural western Massachusetts. I am raising chickens (for meat and for eggs) and planning for guinea fowl, Shetland sheep, and probably goats and/or alpaca. Possibly feeder pigs. Raising veggies and going solar.
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